There continues to be a problem in the American workplace today with Sexual harassment. Although, there seems to be a current change in culture with claims of sexual harassment at the forefront of today’s headlines, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 12,428 sexual harassment charges were filed with their agency in 2017. This number has had very little change since 2010, with a total of 12,695 complaints filed (U.S. EEOC). Sexual harassment in the workplace is not new, and based on these statistics, it is not improving. Even though 98% of organizations in the united states have sexual harassment policies, it still very much exists. It has been determined that perception of the harassment can play a vital role (Dougherty, 2017), along with technology in today’s environment (Blakely, 2012). Through available reports, statistics and surveys, I will examine sexual harassment in today’s workplace environment throughout various organizations, from public to private to determine how the manager’s role effects this ongoing issue, and how they can adapt their current policies based on today’s environment?
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The National Women’s Law Center defines sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination, and as result when it occurs on the job it violates the laws against sex discrimination in the workplace. (NWLC, 2016). In light of the “Me Too” movement, there has been more focus on sexual harassment at work. Hollywood in particular has been focused on making change in the workplace, but has the rest of society? A 2015 Cosmopolitan survey of 2,235 full and part-time female employees revealed that one out of three women, between the age of 18 – 34, have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. (Vaglanos, 2015).
Women whom have come forward with allegations of rape and abuse by Harvey Weinstein have brought into focus the huge problem that still exists in today’s environment. This attention has allowed other women to finally be heard. Many of these women have made these allegations for years with their own stories of sexual harassment and assault. In just a 24-hour period in the month of October, over 4.7 million people, mostly women, posted 12 million accounts of harassment or assault on Facebook, using the hashtag #MeToo. This movement has forced society to reexamine the current culture. Although subtle, changes are slowly being incorporated into our daily lives. This is evident in how magazines depict women, rather than portraying them just as sex symbols, they run articles written by women addressing this very subject. Commercials have also started making some changes, with ads focusing on young men’s self-esteem and promoting strong women. (Suddath, 2017).
The EEOC’s website describes sexual harassment as the following: “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature,
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however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.” (EEOC, 2018).
In 1977 a less well-known but important ruling, Barnes v. Costle helped lay the groundwork for protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. The case involved a black woman, Paulette Barnes, who lost her job after she rejected her supervisor’s repeated sexual advances. Her case was ultimately dismissed by the lower court, arguing that the requests by her supervisor did not violate the law. However, the federal appellate court found for the first time that sexual harassment constituted illegal sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, that sexual harassment created a hostile environment, which violated protections against sex discrimination of Title VII, (Frye, 2017). According to the EEOC fact page, “sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government.” (EEOC, 2018).
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“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” (EEOC, 2018). “Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to:
• The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
• The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
• The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
• Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
• The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.” (EEOC. 2018).
What actions can be taken? The EEOC suggests that “the victim informs the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available. When investigating allegations of sexual harassment, EEOC looks at the whole record: the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. A determination on the allegations is made from the facts on a case-by-case basis.” (EEOC, 2018).
So why does sexual harassment still occur? To understand this, we must further define the types of sexual harassment. Non-physical harassment, includes degrading comments, sexual
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jokes, offensive language, displays of sexual materials and sexual gestures, to include exposure. Sexual coercion, includes offers of rewards such as a bonus, pay increase, or a promotion for a sexual favor. Sexual threats, include reduction in work hours, firing, additional work, and reduction in pay. Physical sexual harassment, includes behaviors such as touching inappropriately, kissing, cuddling, massaging, pinching, groping, and attempted rape. Cyber-harassment, includes the display of offensive and sexually explicit visual material on computers and mobile devices. This form of harassment may occur both within and outside the immediate location of the workplace and beyond work hours. (McDonald, 2010).
Many times, individuals report being harassed by more than one type of the behaviors mentioned above. Because verbal harassment tends to be more socially acceptable and can appear to be less threatening than physical harassment it tends to go unreported. However, this type of harassment can reinforce the perpetrator’s actions and can eventually become physical. Research has found that women often do not experience sexual harassment in isolation, yet it still goes unreported, even by witnesses. (McDonald, 2010).
The outrage management model lays-out the strategies harassers use to minimize outrage of their actions. The model suggests that, when powerful individuals behave in a way that others perceive as unjust, they use specific tactics to downplay the outrage (McDonald, 2010). Evidence for outrage management tactics was found in the high-pro?le 1991 case of Anita Hill, who accused Clarence Thomas, then nominated to the US Supreme Court, of sexually harassing her a decade earlier as the director for the EEOC. The five types of tactics that reduce outrage were all evident in this case. 1) Cover-up, is a very common occurrence. This typically occurs in situations with no witnesses. The victims typically keep quiet because of shame or fear of
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reprisal. Companies fear bad publicity and work hard not to publicize these cases. 2) Devaluation, is also fairly common, this is done either openly and/or through rumors. This may involve derogatory references, such as being called a “slut,”. It can also involve condemnation of performance, such as incompetence or dishonesty. Victims face intense scrutiny, and the harassers frequently prey on weaknesses to justify their actions. Many victims are made to feel that they are to blame or they caused it somehow. 3) Reinterpretation involves denying some of the actions or minimizing the seriousness of the harassment and blaming others. Offenders try to play it off, claiming their comments were innocent or have been misinterpreted. 4) The use of official channels involves reports to senior officials, appeals to organizational boards, or professional organizations. Official channels typically involve a formal process, that requires confidentiality. Although intentions are good, many times the process is a slow and tedious one. Appearance to outsiders is that justice is being accomplished, however outcomes rarely live up to expectations. 5) Intimidation and bribery often includes threats, open or implied, unwelcome job assignments, pay or work-hour reductions, poor references, or even dismissal. Whereas bribery may involve promises of rewards, pay increase or new job assignments. (McDonald, 2010).
What are the driving factors behind sexual harassment? Research has shown that men use sexual harassment as a form of male dominance, to maintain their own power in the workplace. By creating a sexually charged environment with female coworkers or subordinates, it reduces the female’s role to a sexual object to diminish their power and reinforces their own. Additionally, gender-role spillover theorizes that because males can be accustomed to dealing with women in a subordinate role both domestically and in social settings, this behavior transfers into the workplace. Accordingly, females can define themselves in a subordinate feminine role
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which can then carry over into the workplace and define the interaction between men and women. (McDonald, 2010). This may also transfer over to male dominance over other males with attempts to feminize them by enforcing dominant gender norms. Additionally, theorists believe that the ratio rate of women to men can influence the work environment. In predominant female occupational settings, for example, waiting tables or administrative work, the managers will enforce dominance, leading to a greater potential for sexual harassment. On the flip side, predominant male settings, such as construction or law enforcement, females may experience harassment because of the potential threat they bring to male jobs and occupational identities. Both deal with the dominance of power, and the consequences are similar. Both can result in severe emotional and psychological damage by the victim. (McDonald, 2010).
How can sexual harassment be prevented? The continued occurrences of filed harassment claims led to the creation of an EEOC task force in January 2015. This involved an in-depth 18-month look at all harassment types in the workplace. A comprehensive report was developed and issued by the task force in June 2016 which identified several methods of prevention, from more robust anti-harassment policies, improved comprehensive training, better organizational leadership, and peer-to-peer interventions. It was also noted that more research on the prevalence of sexual harassment needs to be studied further, this includes areas less researched, such as, sexual orientation and gender identity. (Frye, 2017).
Employers are responsible for the conduct of supervisors and managers. They also have a responsibility to protect their employees from harassment. If managers were aware of sexual harassment and didn’t do anything to stop it, they are liable. Ignoring any claims of sexual harassment and other misconduct can result in severe ramifications for the company. Not only
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could this have legal and financial consequences, ignoring or dismissing employee complaints can have second and third order effects within the organization. First, it sends a message that unacceptable behavior is tolerated and negatively impacts the organization’s culture. It puts out a message that the organization condones the individuals conduct, victimizing the victim further. It can negatively impact the company’s future and reputation once the allegations are exposed. (Reger, 2017).
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. An effective and comprehensive policy on harassment must be implemented and/or existing plans need to be reviewed and updated to address the changing culture. The plan must stress that under no circumstances will sexual harassment be tolerated. The plan and its policies should be publicized and fully supported by management. Leaderships strong commitment to diversity is a great starting point. Sexual harassment training should be offered to employees and with involvement by their supervisors. Companies should also establish a formal complaint process, whereas employees can openly discuss their issues and experiences without fear of retaliation. An effective complaint or grievance process means immediate and appropriate action will be taken when an employee complains. Employees will be fully aware of their rights, as well as make use of the processes available to them to raise concerns when problems arise. When an investigation proves sexual harassment was involved, disciplinary actions must be taken immediately. Lastly, it is managements responsibility to follow-up with all claims to ensure there has been a satisfactory resolution. (Bateman & Snell, 2017).
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For a sexual harassment policy to be effective it must stress the illegalities and clearly lay-out an appropriate complaint process while at the same time ensure the victim’s confidentiality. Additionally, a clearly defined policy should encourage witnesses or victims to come forward and report the behavior immediately. The policy should also make it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and it is illegal and appropriate actions will be taken against the harasser. The organization’s sexual harassment policy should be made available to all employees by distributing it and making it easily accessible on the company’s website and by posting it in prominent locations. Employers should also mandate training and conduct seminars to educate the workforce and promote the company’s policy. (Feminist Majority Foundation, 2014).
Unfortunately, even with the current policies and procedures in place, sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be all too common. Many times, victims are unsure of what is considered as sexual harassment and do not know their rights or the steps to take when they are being harassed. Because of this, sexual harassment many times goes unreported and the harassment continues. Any form of sexual harassment can turn a company into a toxic and unproductive work environment. Policies and grievance processes in place do not automatically protect the employer from liability. They need to step up and take actions and responsibility against the sexual harassment once they are aware it is occurring. Not including legal costs, sexual harassment can cost the average company up to $6.7 million a year in reduced productivity, employee turnover, absenteeism, and low morale. Following clear and proactive formal policies against sexual harassment in the workplace is one way to prevent lawsuits and drops in productivity and efficiency. (Feminist Majority Foundation, 2014).
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Realizing that many do not want to acknowledge or discuss that sexual harassment is occurring in several work settings, it’s imperative that it is directly addressed. Many victims choose to remain silent of fear of being blamed or scrutinized. The EEOC Task Force identified through their research that sexual harassment is significantly underreported, its estimated that 70 percent of workers who experienced sex-based harassment never formally reported it. (Frye, 2017).
To effectively make changes in the workplace the following steps should be implemented by employers and employees to fight the issues of sexual harassment and achieve success. It will require consistency and a deliberate comprehensive effort throughout the organization and a robust sexual harassment policy to address illegal conduct and change the culture of the work environment. The following steps should be immediately implemented:
1. Exhibit leadership through zero-tolerance
2. Establish equality as a principle core value
3. Update standards in the workplace to respond to workers’ diverse experiences and challenges.
4. Strongly enforce policies and laws at all levels
5. Work together to combat stereotypes and biases
6. Empower the workforce (Frye, 2017).
Furthermore, involvement by Congress will address the sexual harassment issue at the government level, which has permeated every organization, to include its own. Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia Congressional Representative and former chairwoman of the EEOC, acknowledges that sexual harassment in today’s workplace needs to be addressed
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immediately and one must understand the changing culture with new forms of communication, such as the internet and social media. Representative Norton proposed to establish a national commission on sexual harassment. This will send a message to the country that Congress understands the magnitude of what is being confronted by women and men of the American workforce, as well as their employers. (Norton, 2018).
No one person can single-handedly eliminate sexual harassment. The effort will require a full commitment, perseverance, and unwavering support to pursue change. Completely eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace will take time, but through dedication and hard work at every level it is possible, if action is taken now. (Frye, 2017).