Workplace bullying, including sexual harassment, can cost businesses productivity, employees, reputation and cash, according to consultants, researchers, attorneys and a national task force.
Jerry Carbo, Shippensburg (Pa.) University professor of management and marketing and an expert in workplace bullying, served on that Equal Employment Opportunity tax force. The panel released a report in 2016 after 18 months of study.
Nearly two years after that experience, as high-profile reports of sexual harassment hit the news, Carbo said, “It’s been a long time coming.”
“There’s no excuse at this point for not dealing with it. … It’s really not that hard,” he said.
Carbo, who also has worked in human resources with private companies, said sexual harassment and other forms of workplace bullying remain too common and under-reported.
In October, a Wall Street Journal and NBC poll found 48 perent of female workers said they had personally experienced sexual harassment at work.
The EEOC task force found that “the least common response to harassment is to take some formal action.” Roughly 75 percent of people who experience harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative.
While headlines might have raised awareness of the issue, Carbo said, there has been little action at a national level.
“We’re becoming one of the new countries that doesn’t deal with it directly,” he said.
In the United States, harassment falls under anti-discrimination statutes. But in some nations, such as Germany and Sweden, workplace bullying conduct is against civil law, and companies can be held liable, Carbo said. France goes further, making it a criminal offense.
At bottom, he said, it’s about “dignity in the workplace.”
‘Train, train, train’
“Ignoring (sexual harassment) is not going to make it go away, and ignoring it will cause it to go deeper,” consultant Toni Bowie of MaxLife LLC said recently. “And if you are (a) business owner, you’re putting what you have worked for for so long in jeopardy. And you don’t want to do that. And it is your responsibility to make sure you provide a safe work environment for all of your employees. Remember that. That’s your legal responsibility.”
Bowie urged business leaders to be proactive and make sure they are following solid company policies against harassment.
“Educate, educate, educate. Train, train, train,” she said. “And make sure your training is an interactive training. Make sure it’s not just simply having your employees, or even yourself, go and view the same video that you’ve been viewing that’s 20 years or 30 years old. Don’t do that. You need training that is engaging, that people can ask questions because there’s still a lot of confusion around this. There are myths that are out there. People need to understand the realities, and you’re able to do that when there’s conversation going back and forth. And so the conversation piece is critical as far as educating and training.”
‘They’ve had it’
Professor Walter DeKeseredy, director of the Research Center on Violence at West Virginia University, said the issue touches on cultural aspects both in and our of workplaces.
“We do live in a patriarchal society. Many men are raised to believe that women are subordinates. … Many men have serious problems in the workplace with female leadership.”
That’s changing to a degree, he said, because there are more women than men in colleges and more women are entering business leadership roles.
DeKeseredy is not surprised that many of the harassment cases have taken years to be reported.
“Women don’t report sooner because they fear retaliation, such as losing their jobs or getting low grades from instructors,” he said. “Women also fear that no one will believe them or that they will be be blamed for ‘leading men along.’ Most cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault never result in formal punishment, another key reason why so few victims officially report.”
To bring lasting results, DeKeseredy said changes must start outside the workplace, perhaps in school when some adolescent boys “tease” girls by snapping their bra straps. Courses in college business schools might help, he said. Corporate leaders could meet for a couple of days in a conference aimed at issues of equality.
He also suggests a change in corporate culture if that culture includes lunch meetings, after-hours gatherings for drinks, golf games and the like.
“Get rid of that. Get rid of it already,” he said. “How’s that related to business? … If you want to talk to me about work, well, let’s meet in my office.”
In the United States, he said, talking about sexual harassment can turn into a debate about politics.
“Once you start turning it into that, then you’re ignoring the issue,” he said. “This not a liberal or conservative issue.”
It is an issue that will be with us for a while, he predicted.
“This is an old problem. This is nothing new,” he said. “What is new is we’re seeing an increase in the number of women coming forward. They’ve had it.”
No sex jokes
Paul Frey also thinks the issue will be with businesses for the foreseeable future.
Frey is president and chief executive officer of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The chamber hosted a session on preventing sexual harassment in January.
“This really is a leadership issue, in my opinion,” he told business leaders in attendance.
One of a leader’s roles, he said, is to protect important resources of an organization. Then he added, “there’s no more vital resource than your staff.”
One of the speakers at the chamber event was attorney Doug Desmarais of Smith & Downey P.A. He said sexual harassment is a “subset of discrimination,” and the 1964 Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Some jurisdictions, such as the state of Maryland, go further and provide protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Legally speaking, “harassment” can cover a variety of things. Perhaps easiest to label, he said, is “quid pro quo” — Latin for “something for something.” For example, making the offer of a promotion in exchange for sexual favors.
“That’s evil,” Desmarais said. “That’s so easy to recognize as something that’s illegal.”
It’s not so easy to recognize more subtle forms of harassment, he said, because what one employee considers to be a joke another might consider an insult. Good-natured kidding among peers might veer into harassment.
People like to smile and laugh at the job, he said, but he added, “I would not allow a single sex joke in your workplace.”
That does not mean supervisors can not discipline employees.
“I am the father of five children,” he said by way of comparison, “and all of them have now accused me of harassment.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace spent the last 18 months at its work and released its report in 2016.
Its key findings:
• “Workplace harassment remains a persistent problem.” Almost a third of the approximately 90,000 charges received by EEOC in fiscal year 2015 included an allegation of workplace harassment.
• “Workplace harassment too often goes unreported.” Rather than report the incidents, victims of sex-based harassment most often “avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure the behavior. The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action — either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint.”
• “There is a compelling business case for stopping and preventing harassment.” In 2015, EEOC recovered $164.5 million for workers alleging harassment, and those costs are only the start. “Workplace harassment first and foremost comes at a steep cost to those who suffer it, as they experience mental, physical, and economic harm. Beyond that, workplace harassment affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm.”
• “It starts at the top — leadership and accountability are critical.” The task force count that “effective harassment prevention efforts, and workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, must start with and involve the highest level of management of the company.”
• “Training must change.” It should be “tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees.”
• “New and different approaches to training should be explored.” Some of those include “bystander intervention” and civility sessions that promote respect and civility.
• “It’s on us.” “Harassment in the workplace will not stop on its own — it’s on all of us to be part of the fight to stop workplace harassment. We cannot be complacent bystanders and expect our workplace cultures to change themselves.”
For the full report, visit www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment