Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination: Keeping Employees Safe in the #MeToo Era
In the wake of the #MeToo Movement, more and more industries are grappling with the fact that sexual harassment is both a widespread and under-reported phenomenon (Khomami, 2017; Jagsi, 2018). Numerous victims, of a variety of genders, have suffered in silence for years while supervisors and colleagues subjected them to unwanted sexual attention. Now, suddenly, accusations are being made public, and victims are being met with greater public understanding and empathy.
Unfortunately organizations are woefully ill-equipped to deal with a sudden and dramatic increase in sexual harassment and assault accusations (Jagsi, 2018). Many of the systems and procedures that have been in place for decades are not adept at preventing all forms of harassment, and may not be sufficient to keep employees safe or help them attain justice (Smartt, 2017). How can a concerned manager protect employees from harassment, investigate accusations in an equitable way, and prevent future incidents? This blog post will summarize some of the latest research on the subject.
The #MeToo Movement has revealed that for many survivors of sexual harassment and violence, the workplace is not a safe place to confront an attacker or seek justice (Khomami, 2017). Many people have been forced or pressured to stay silent about colleagues who have created an unsafe work environment; when victims have come forward, they have historically been undermined or ignored (Fitzgerald et al, 1995). As a manager, one of your responsibilities is to respond to this ongoing social phenomenon by taking steps that will empower survivors and help keep them safe (Hatch-Maillette & Scalora, 2002).
When considering the safety and wellbeing of employees, keep in mind that preventative and protective steps are separate from investigating whether an assault took place. If a woman or other employee reportedly feels uncomfortable working with someone, or serving a particular client, operate with a baseline assumption that their feelings are genuine. Some industries have implemented “traffic light” style systems, in which employees are encouraged to alert management if anyone within the organization is causing “yellow” level problems (moderate discomfort or impropriety), or “red” level problems (direct harassment or severe feelings of unsafety). Under this system, both “yellow” and “red” complaints are addressed with managerial oversight and support (Wade, 2018).
In a “yellow” scenario, a manager may choose to step in and gently correct actions or comments that are rude or inappropriate. In a “red” scenario, the immediate response may be to separate the two individuals, or supervise all interactions with them, to ensure safety is ensured (Wade, 2018). Restructuring of workflows, and increased transparency, can also be used to make sure no one is forced to work alone with someone they feel threatened by. Note that this strategy does not involve punishing the accused person, or assuming they are guilty (Bowling & Beehr, 2006); the focus is on stepping in and making potential victims feel supported, rather than isolated. This helps prevent future events, and ensures that managers and other employees are present to witness, and help document, any incidents that do occur.
Introduce Safe Spaces
“Safe spaces” are typically moderated, semi-exclusive groups that allow minorities or under-represented groups of people to find common ground and discuss shared problems. In university settings, for example, a safe space may take the form of a club where LGBTQ students can discuss harassment and prejudice they have experienced in relative privacy, perhaps with the assistance of a trained group moderator (Lim & Cortina, 2005). These spaces are meant to provide minority groups with a respite from stress, and a place where frustrations can be aired without causing a conflict. An entire workplace can never be fully “safe”; the goal behind “safe spaces” is allowing individuals to let off steam, so they can function more comfortably in the rest of the organization (Rom, 1998).
As a manager, you can help women and gender minorities deal with harassment and discrimination by instituting such “safe spaces”. It may take the form of a weekly women’s group, where sexism in your industry is discussed and explored. Regular meetings to discuss sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace boundaries can be provided for past victims, or for anyone who feels impacted by such issues (Rom, 1998). These groups should function to provide support and privacy; addressing specific harassment issues may be done in an entirely separate setting.
When introducing a “safe space”, keep in mind that concerns shared within the space should not be shared publicly without the individual’s permission. A group moderator should be present to ensure that conversations are productive and supportive, not judgmental. Finally, make sure such groups are open to a variety of individuals who might be impacted by sexual harassment – women are often victims of sexual harassment at work, but men and gender nonbinary people can be as well (Einarsen & Raknes, 1997). Minority group members, such as people of color and LGBTQ people, are also at an elevated risk of harassment.
Establishing New Norms
Altering your workplace culture to prevent future harassment is essential. Thankfully, the #MeToo Movement can be used as both an inspiration, and a warning, in terms of choosing policies to enact. First, consider the movement’s root assumption that all survivors should be believed. Within organizational settings, immediately trusting all accusers and punishing all accused parties is both impractical and not legally feasible (Bowling & Beehr, 2006). Evidence must be provided, and documented, in most instances. However, this does not mean that procedures cannot be adapted.
For example, what is considered trustworthy or acceptable evidence of harassment can be expanded, in light of recent research and evidence (Fitzgerald et al, 1995). If a woman reports that a man is routinely rude towards her, and consistently encroaches upon her physical boundaries, document these complaints, and err on the side of believing them (Wilness et al, 2007). When women (or other employees) report feeling disparaged or unsafe around certain individuals, take steps to ensure everyone feels safe. This does not mean that all men who behave inappropriately should be fired or severely punished – merely that no crossing of boundaries should be tolerated or explained away.
As a manager, you can help establish norms of respect and professionalism by shutting down all sexist conversations and discouraging comments on a woman’s physical appearance (Lim & Cortina, 2005). Enlist the help of women and minority employees and supervisors, and allow them to help teach other members of the organization about how harassment and discrimination looks, in its various forms. Many employees may be unaware of small physical or conversational habits they engage in that unintentionally make others feel unsafe; awareness, education, and empathy can help minimize conflicts before they grow into larger harassment complaints (Wilness et al, 2007).
Bowling, N. A., & Beehr, T. A. (2006). Workplace harassment from the victim's perspective: a theoretical model and meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(5), 998.
Einarsen, S., & Raknes, B. I. (1997). Harassment in the workplace and the victimization of men. Violence and victims, 12(3), 247.
Fitzgerald, L. F., Swan, S., & Fischer, K. (1995). Why didn't she just report him? The psychological and legal implications of women's responses to sexual harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 51(1), 117-138.
Jagsi, R. (2018). Sexual harassment in medicine—# MeToo. New England Journal of Medicine, 378(3), 209-211.
Hatch-Maillette, M. A., & Scalora, M. J. (2002). Gender, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and risk assessment:: Convergence around psychiatric staff's perceptions of personal safety. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7(3), 271-291.
Khomami, N. (2017). MeToo: How a hashtag became a rallying cry against sexual harassment. The Guardian, 20.
Lim, S., & Cortina, L. M. (2005). Interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace: the interface and impact of general incivility and sexual harassment. Journal of applied psychology, 90(3), 483.
Rom, R. B. (1998). 'Safe spaces': reflections on an educational metaphor. Journal of Curriculum studies, 30(4), 397-408.
Smartt, N. (2017). Sexual Harassment In The Workplace In A# MeToo World.
Erika Price is a social psychologist, writer, and statistical and methodological consultant based in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Erika's research has focused on the psychology of political tolerance and open-mindedness. In addition to conducting experimental and survey-based research on these topics, Erika helps clients use methodological and data analytic tools to answer pressing questions that challenge their organization.
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