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How Organizations Can Really Fight Sexual Harassment


by Stephany Below, SIOP Communications Manager

Workplace Psychologists Weigh in on Culture, Policies, and Prevention

The latter half of 2017 saw The New York Times break the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the movie titan’s subsequent fall. Since then, victims have brought forth a seemingly endless barrage of allegations against numerous high-profile, and very powerful, men and women within Hollywood, politics, the media, and other industries.

This movement has helped to purge organizations of longstanding sexual predators and has also ignited a fervent interest in changing the workplace cultures that have allowed such abuse to go on for so long. In addition, the recently trending #metoo and #timesup social media campaigns have served as reminders of the ubiquity of sexual harassment for all women and men, even those in less high-profile industries, as well as urgent calls to action.

I-O psychology experts contend that organizations and leaders play an important role in addressing sexual harassment—and recent I-O research shows thoughtfully created policies, meaningful training, cultural changes, and accountability can be powerful tools for prevention.

How Prevalent is Harassment?

According to a November Quinnipiac University poll, sixty percent of American women voters say they've experienced sexual harassment. Among women who say they've been harassed, 69 percent say they've experienced it at work. However, it can often be difficult to determine its prevalence, explained Dr. Jessica Gallus, SIOP member and expert on sexual harassment.

“Some researchers ask individuals directly if they've been sexually harassed, and these numbers are always lower than asking people about specific harassment behaviors without asking directly if the person has been harassed,” Gallus explained. “This tells us that many people don't label their experiences as sexual harassment even when it is.”
While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) keeps track of harassment claims (they reported more than 6,700 sexual harassment claims in 2016, making up about a quarter of all harassment claims reported to them), determining the prevalence of sexual harassment can also be difficult due to victims’ unwillingness to report it, explained Dr. Elissa Perry, a Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and expert on sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Keep in mind, the EEOC statistics only include the people who complained in a formal way,” Perry explained. “But the predominant response to sexual harassment is to not do anything, to avoid it, ignore it, deny it.”

The Difficulties of Reporting Harassment

In most instances, coming forward is psychologically detrimental for the victim, since it often requires them to relive the abuse. There may also be economic implications for victims, Perry added.

“Legal action isn’t often successful, and settlements are pretty low even when they are successful,” Perry explained. “So, there is no guarantee that saying something direct and formally will lead to a good outcome. There are also many people who really cannot afford to lose their jobs.”

The victim may also fear not being believed, though Gallus noted estimates of false reports are incredibly low.

Considering the often severe psychological and economic implications for the victims, Gallus and Perry said organizations play an important role in addressing and preventing the abuse. There are numerous strategies organizations can employ. One is to take the onus off the victim.  

“Focusing on the victim is not necessarily the best or only solution,” Perry explained. “Observers may be more likely to take an active response to the harassers. They may be less concerned with retaliation as well.”

Leaders and organizations should also respond by supporting employees who report, Gallus said.

“Responding with empathy and sensitivity is important, as is providing formal support to the victim in the form of access to medical, behavioral health, or legal resources,” she explained. “Efforts that can be done to empower the victim in their process, such as keeping them updated on what is happening with their case, helping them understand the overall process and next steps, and giving them a voice in what happens to the convicted, can be very powerful.”

Gallus also said organizations should research reporting mechanisms that provide for a continuum of responses versus binary reporting options (i.e., report/don't report).

“People oftentimes don't report because they don't want to be victimized by the system, but perhaps if we gave victims a range of options, they would be more apt to come forward,” she said.

Accountability is Key

Next, organizations should ensure perpetrators are held accountable. Accountability may be challenging in industries such as Hollywood and the political arena, where individuals are deemed as “untouchable,” but it is nonetheless vital. For example, were Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein held accountable when incidences were first reported, more victims may have felt empowered to come forward, Gallus explained.

Accountability has myriad benefits for the organization and harassment prevention.

“Not only is it the right thing to do, but also the impact to performance and the bottom line can be devastating if perpetrators are not held accountable,” Gallus explained. “Even those who witness but don't experience sexual harassment experience negative psychological and organizational outcomes. When someone is found to be a perpetrator that person needs to be held accountable, otherwise the prevention policies that are in place ring hollow to the employees who've witnessed or experienced such behavior.”

Consider Your Organizational Culture and Climate

A broader strategy is to consider the overall organizational climate. Organizational psychologist and SIOP Fellow Louise Fitzgerald started the conversation about the organizational climates that tolerate sexual harassment, Perry explained. As in the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many victims claimed to have been silenced, either through restrictive settlements or fear of being ostracized from the industry. Some victims have even claimed to have provided names of alleged abusers, only to see nothing done. Workplace actions against the accused have sometimes been swift and at other times non-existent.

Organizations should audit their climate, Perry explained. Ask people in your organization, “what do you think about reporting? If people say there is little likelihood that something would be done, you have a climate problem, she said.

“Employees who work in an organization that has a high level of tolerance for sexual harassment perceive the risk of reporting is high and also think the likelihood that something will be done is low.”

Perry explained that often victims do not come forward because the organizational culture simply does not support it.

“Considering the power dynamics at play, whether in Hollywood, the political arena, or just between a powerful executive and low-level employees, intimidation and fear often come into play,” she explained. “In many circumstances, the victim fears harming his or her career or retaliation for speaking up, as we have seen a great deal in the news lately.”

Because sexual harassment is a power-based phenomenon, some organizations may be more susceptible to such incidence, particularly when there are significant gender imbalances in the organization or lower representation of particular groups, Gallus added. Greater diversity in the leadership of male-dominant industries would also be a useful step in culture change.

Research also shows that perpetrators are usually in some position of power over the employee—supervisor harassment is more common than subordinate harassment for example—and that it's not uncommon for individuals to be shunned following exposure to such incidence. “There is a reason these scandals stay under wraps for so many years and it's oftentimes the feared and real retaliation that comes with reporting,” Gallus added.

“A healthy organizational culture starts at the top, in the form of leaders being explicit in their expectations about appropriate workplace behaviors and setting the conditions that foster positive behavior and eliminate different forms of mistreatment,” Gallus said.  “Even when professional retaliation isn't present, social ostracism and retaliation can be commonplace,”

Prevention requires a community approach where individuals at all levels of the organization understand their contribution to a positive culture and what they can do to intervene when they see situations that may be harmful, she added.

Look Closely at Your Policy

Another step for organizations is to look closely at their sexual harassment policy.

“You might be surprised, that not all organizations have policies against it,” Perry noted. “People ask, ‘why doesn’t she just say something,’ but economically and psychologically we know that is a very difficult thing to do. So why develop a system that depends on reporting by victims? You need to develop a policy that encourages and expects bystanders to step forward as well. And not just observers.  You need to create a culture in which it doesn’t occur in the first place.

The content of that policy is very important. In research presented at the recent Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, titled “How Organizational Policies Influence Bystander Likelihood of Reporting Sexual Harassment, SIOP Student Affiliate Ryan K. Jacobson (Florida International University and Backer Marathon) examined how the likelihood of reporting coworker perpetrated male-to-female sexual harassment was affected by organizational policies around gender discrimination and severity of the harassment. Results indicated an organization’s zero-tolerance policy statement increased reporting likelihood, particularly among less severe sexual harassment. Jacobson’s research showed those presented with a zero-tolerance harassment policy were significantly more likely to report the behavior than those presented with a standard policy, while there was not a significant difference in reporting between those in the standard policy group and those given no policy. This research was also recently published in the Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal.

“Zero-tolerance organizational policies may help decrease the occurrence of sexual harassment by increasing the likelihood individuals report sexual harassment in organizations because such policies are perceived by employees to indicate less risk for reporting a complaint, that complaints will be taken seriously at the organization, and an increased likelihood that the perpetrator will actually be punished compared to standard workplace harassments policies,” Jacobson wrote.

However, Gallus added that she would also like to see more research regarding zero-tolerance policies.

“In the same way that people may feel protected to report with these policies, some individuals will not report,” she explained. “Many individuals don’t want the subject to lose their job; they just want the behavior to stop. Going from a 0 to 100 response, doesn’t give the victim much room.”

Provide Effective Training

Finally, organizations should be sure to provide training that matters. In Perry’s recent research, she and her colleagues researched HR professionals’ primary reason for training.

“If you say the primary focus for this training is ‘for legal protection,’ you are probably going to care very little about the quality of training,” Perry said. “But if you choose training for strategic purposes, you will be more likely to use best practices for successful outcomes.”

I-O psychologists know a lot about what makes training effective, Perry continued, but that does not always get used in the context of sexual harassment training. The pre training stage, such as needs assessment, can often be overlooked, Perry noted. The content of training, passive verses experiential, is relevant. Organizations should ask themselves, Where is this most likely needed? Who needs it? Where do they need it? Perry and Gallus said this also means being thoughtful about having a variety of training experiences.

“We know from the research that legal approaches to sexual harassment training, such as helping individuals understand the laws around sexual harassment, are not impactful in preventing this type of behavior,” Gallus explained. “What's more impactful is providing employees with the skills needed to foster positive work environments and intervene when something is amiss. To build this capability, we need to provide employees with a number of options for intervening.”

Gallus said many organizations focus on very direct aggressive approaches, but we need models that include other effective intervention approaches, such as distraction and requesting help from a third party.

Post-training activities are also important. This includes refresher training and rewarding people for actually applying what they learned on the job. Those training measures should also be infused into the culture of the organization, Gallus added.

“Yearly one-hour training sessions might not be helpful from a prevention perspective if prevention efforts aren't infused into other parts of the culture or if there are no follow-up engagements to reinforce prevention messaging,” she said.

Organizations can help by creating a culture where this type of behavior isn't tolerated and where those who engage in such behavior are held accountable.

“In some ways, not holding individuals accountable when there are anti-sexual harassment policies in place is more detrimental than not having the policies in the first place,” Gallus said. “In these cases, victims may feel doubly betrayed, first from experiencing harassment in an organization they thought didn't tolerate such behavior and then by the lack of perpetrator accountability from the organization that has promised to protect them.”

The Potential Costs are Huge

Organizations should clearly respond to and prevent sexual harassment for the sake of their employees, but there are other reasons to address it as well. Now that accusations are becoming more public, there are also reputational costs for organizations to consider, Perry explained.

“Never mind the ethical responsibility that organizations have to provide a work environment where employees can be the most effective,” Perry said. “When you don’t provide that environment, you may lose the commitment of employees, and when you lose their commitment to the organization, this has negative implications for the bottom line.”

It doesn’t just impact the people who are currently working there, it also potentially sends a signal to people who might be considering working there, Perry added. For example, the perception that an organization tolerates sexual harassment may influence the likelihood of a job candidate applying for a job at that organization.

Gallus also warned organizations not to be too reactive. Some high-profile men have made headlines recently for their intentional habits of not meeting with women privately. Others worry the recent fury will further prevent male leaders from meeting with women to avoid even the possibility of being accused of misconduct. But this might not be such a good idea.

“We know sexual harassment is more likely to occur in occupations that are highly gender-skewed,” Gallus said. “If we continue to create situations where powerful men will not meet with women in the same way they would with other men, then such women do not get the same networking and mentoring opportunities as their male counterparts. This is particularly problematic the higher up in the organization you get. If women aren't invited to the table, we're going to continue to have problems with the glass ceiling.”

All of the media and accusations may serve as a wakeup call for organizations, Perry said.

“Everyone knows training and culture change are necessary, but it’s sort of like storm preparation,” she said. “It’s easy to put it off until that storm happens. That’s what we are seeing right now. Here’s the storm, and organizations now have to take this more seriously to address its implications.”

Steps for Organizations:

  1. Show support: Organizations and leaders should support victims and recognize the often overwhelming psychological and economic difficulties inherent in reporting. Provide victims a voice in the process.
  2. Follow-through: Leaders need to set the tone for the organization and be explicit in their expectations. When harassment is reported, perpetrators should be held accountable. Employees are less likely to report harassment if they feel nothing will be done to address it.
  3. Audit your culture: How do people in your organization feel about reporting? Employees should feel that reporting will result in action and no negative consequences to the victim. Employees should also feel free to speak up when they see harassment of others.
  4. Look at your policy: Do you have a policy? Does it rely too heavily on victim reporting? Good policies bring all employees into the circle and encourage a culture that does not tolerate harassment.
  5. Provide a variety of training experiences: Help empower your employees and support a positive culture by giving employees multiple ways to address and prevent misconduct, such as distraction, reporting, and enlisting the help of third-party observers.
  6. Encourage diversity: Organizations with less gender diversity may be more likely to experience sexual harassment.  Diversity in leadership is also important.
  7. Provide meaningful training: Organizations and HR leaders should not simply see this training as a way to legally protect themselves. It should serve as a meaningful opportunity for employees to learn the policy, apply it to the workplace and learn what their unique role is in contributing to a positive climate. Follow through to ensure employees are using their training.


Jessica Gallus: (908) 892-4695 or jessica.gallus@gmail.com
Elissa Perry: (212) 678-4107 or perry@exchange.tc.columbia.edu


“How Organizational Policies Influence Bystander Likelihood of Reporting Moderate and Severe Sexual Harassment at Work," Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, December 2017: https://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10672-017-9309-1