One of the clearest messages from the #MeToo movement has been that sexual harassers need to be held accountable for their actions. This message has resonated with employers and most now appreciate that they need to promptly investigate and appropriately address misconduct once they become aware of it. But employer obligations extend beyond remedial action and include, in Ontario and other jurisdictions, implementing preventative policies and educating employees on the policies.

However, a new US research report indicates that policies aren’t enough and employers need to pay attention to certain warning signs in the workplace to effectively stem sexual harassment. The report’s authors contend that organizational climate is the greatest determinant of sexual harassment occurring in a workplace. In fact, corporate culture can either encourage or discourage an employee to harass, according to the authors.

Why corporate culture matters

Factors specific to the individual, e.g., pre-existing sexist attitudes or beliefs that justify/rationalize harassing behaviour, play a role in whether that individual will harass others, according to the authors. However, an individual inclined toward harassing behaviour will be inhibited when exposed to role models who behave professionally or if their environment does not support harassing behaviour and/or has strong consequences for the behaviour. In other words, the social mores of the workplace function to encourage or discourage employees who are predisposed to harass.

Warning signs of sexual harassment risk

The following signs and symptoms are typical of workplace cultures prone to instances of sexual harassment, according to the authors:

  1. Male-dominated workplaces or leadership;
  2. Hierarchical structures with significant power differentials between levels;
  3. Perceptions that the organization tolerates sexual harassment, e.g., employees perceive that the organization does not take complaints seriously, investigate, sanction offenders, or protect complainants from personal or professional retaliation;
  4. Toleration of subtler forms of gender harassment, e.g., jokes that denigrate one gender, sharing explicit sexual material, etc., are permitted or not addressed in the workplace; and
  5. Harassing under the influence, e.g., males in the workplace are prone to heavy drinking and/or unconstrained drinking norms among males persist in the work culture.

Ameliorating the above conditions can help prevent sexual harassment from occurring, according to the authors. The authors point to studies that showed a greater propensity for harassment where the above conditions existed, including the following findings:

  • women who work with almost all men were 1.68 times more likely to encounter gender harassment as compared with women who work in gender-balanced workgroups;
  • hierarchical work environments, with a large power differential between organizational levels and an expectation not to question those higher up, tended to have higher rates of sexual harassment than organizations with less power differentials between levels; and
  • risk of gender harassment of female workers significantly increased where male coworkers were heavy or “at-risk” drinkers and this association was amplified if permissive workplace drinking norms among males were embedded in the work culture.

Key takeaways

At a minimum, employers need to set clear workplace harassment policies, educate employees about the policies, and enforce them consistently. Employees need to perceive that offenders will be disciplined appropriately and complainants will be protected from retaliation.

But it is equally important to set a culture that discourages harassment. Ideally, respect and tolerance should be felt in the work climate. As a starting point, employers should consider whether their leadership and workplace as a whole reflects gender balance. Employers who need guidance in affecting change can draw on established best practices in this area. For example, three “game-changers” have been shown to drive results[1]:

  • Persistence – best-in-class companies implemented diversity programs over a long period, indicating that tangible and sustainable results take time.
  • CEO commitment, cascading downward – companies that successfully built gender diversity at the leadership level were twice as likely to place gender diversity among the top three priorities on their strategic agenda, to have strong support from the CEO and management, and to integrate gender diversity at all levels of the organization.
  • Comprehensive transformation programs – successful programs ingrained gender diversity in all aspects of the business, including change agents and role models at all levels of the organization, and incorporated a compelling change story to support the programs, policies and processes put in place.

Employers should also keep in mind that harassing conduct is not limited to explicit comments or unwanted attention. Comments that denigrate one gender are also sexual harassment. Employers need to watch for these more subtle forms of harassment, particularly since they may point to a larger cultural problem.