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The Practical Employer

How Do We Start to STOP Sexual Harassment?

It’s no longer OK to say, 'Oh, that’s just good ol’ Ted. Can’t keep his hands to himself.'

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Mark Halperin, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes … the list of men accused of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct seems to know no end.

I very much hope that we have reached the beginning of a cultural watershed against sexual harassment in America. Which is undoubtedly a good thing, especially when you consider a recent Washington Post survey reporting that nearly one-third of women have received an unwanted sexual advance from a co-worker.

All of which begs the question … if sexual harassment is so prevalent in the American workplace, how do we start having a conversation about how to stop it?
Thankfully, the EEOC has some answers. Or at least the beginning of some answers.

Last year, the EEOC spearheaded a Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, headed by Commissioners Chai Feldblum and (current acting EEOC Chair) Victoria Lipnic. That task force published an 88-page report [pdf] on harassment in the workplace. That report, in turn, generated Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Workplace Harassment [pdf], the final publication of which is imminent, and could not be more timely.

The comprehensive draft report covers all aspects of workplace harassment law, but it’s its last seven pages—entitled, Promising Practices—that are of particular interest in light of the recent spate of harassment allegations.

It offers five core principles that have generally proven effective in preventing and addressing workplace harassment:

  • Committed and engaged leadership
  • Consistent and demonstrated accountability
  • Strong and comprehensive harassment policies
  • Trusted and accessible complaint procedures
  • Regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization
What do these principles look like in the real world? Rather than offer my own thoughts, I’d like to quote those of Commissioner Feldblum, from her prepared written testimony presented during the EEOC’s June 2016 Public Meeting on Proposed Reboot of Harassment Prevention Efforts, in discussing two key components of any successful harassment prevention protocol:

First: actions to prevent harassment must start from the top. Leaders of an organization—private or non-profit, large or small—must communicate a sense of urgency about preventing workplace harassment. They must communicate this through words, policies and procedures that create a culture in which harassment is not tolerated.
But that is not enough. For workers to believe their leaders are authentic—that they mean what they say—there must be accountability.

This is what accountability looks like: If an individual has engaged in harassment, that individual is sanctioned in a manner proportionate to the harassing conduct. For managers and front-line supervisors, it means that such individuals are measured by how well they deal with reports or observations of harassment, including receiving accolades when they deal with such situations well. …

I will conclude with … our most audacious, recommendation: that EEOC explore the launch of an “It’s On Us” campaign for the workplace. …

It is a campaign that encourages every person to become an engaged bystander…. To succeed, such a campaign would need the active engagement of many societal actors—including, at a minimum, employers, employees, unions, advocacy groups and community leaders. What we propose is that EEOC be a catalyst in helping to launch such a campaign.

And it’s the last point that is perhaps the most important. It is on all of us, men and women, to stop workplace harassment. When you see something, say something. It’s no longer OK to ignore harassment, to say, “Oh, that’s just good ol’ Ted. Can’t keep his hands to himself.”

“Good ol’ Ted” is a sexual predator, who has no place working at your business if he can’t keep his hands, or his inappropriate comments, to himself. When all employees of both genders understand (and maybe not until all employees understand) each’s role as key cog in creating a workplace culture where it’s not only acceptable to complain, but it’s expected that one will complain, we can begin to create the workplace where unlawful harassment is a relic of history.

To put it differently, if you’re not stopping harassment, you’re complicit in it, and that must stop.

Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.