At work, all employees should feel safe and are entitled to pursue their duties in a respectful environment. It’s a given that sexual assault is unacceptable, destructive and illegal. And yet, at alarming rates, news headlines and widespread reports expose workplace sexual assault scandals and allegations. Victims are speaking up. Ugly truths are being revealed. Conversations about sexual harassment and misconduct are taking place everywhere. As a community leader and employer, you too can use this vital opportunity to create positive change.
QuickStat: Nearly 1 in 2 women (44.6%) and 1 in 5 men (22.2%) experienced sexual violence other than rape at some point in their lives.
But First: What Is Sexual Harassment?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment in employment settings is:
“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct that enters into employment decisions or conduct that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”
QuickStat: A 2016 report by the EEOC states that anywhere from 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Fear of Retaliation for Reporting Sexual Harassment
Sadly, sexual harassment is underreported for many reasons – shame, lack of evidence, uncertainty – to name a few. But fear – specifically, fear of retaliation – is often the main reason cases of sexual harassment in the workplace go unreported. In fact, according to the 2016 EEOC report, one 2003 study found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of backlash, despite the illegality of such actions. The consequences of reporting are widespread: ugly truths are exposed about perpetrators; victims are afraid their jobs will be compromised or lost altogether; businesses, families and communities are forever changed.
So what can leaders and employers do to support victims of sexual assault and promote an environment of safety and mutual respect?
Employers have a responsibility to prevent and correct sexual harassment in the workplace. If the situation isn’t addressed, an employer may be financially liable.
Prevention Is Powerful
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers can do the following:
- Clearly communicate to all employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
- Provide sexual harassment training to all employees.
- Establish an effective complaint or grievance process.
- Provide employees with accessible mental health resources, and encourage them to speak up.
- Ensure that supervisors and managers understand their responsibilities under the organization’s anti-harassment policy and complaint procedures.
- Screen applicants to supervisory jobs for a history of harassing behavior. If an employer hires a candidate with such a history, the employer must monitor the employee’s actions to prevent harassment.
- Take immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.
- Keep records of harassment complaints and check new complaints against those records to reveal any pattern of harassment by the same employee.
The EEOC’s Public Portal
The Department of Labor's EEOC Public Portal has made it easier for anyone who believes they have grounds to file a sexual harassment complaint to submit a sexual harassment inquiry online. Inquiries will be evaluated, then victims advised on how the EEOC can assist their case.
Take Action to Effect Real Change
It may be uncomfortable to speak out and address sexual violence, but imagine the way a victim of sexual harassment must feel. As someone in a position of power, you have the influence to create positive change by empowering victims and preventing sexual violence.
For more policy and guidance on ways you can address and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, visit the EEOC’s website and Workplaces Respond to Domestic & Sexual Violence: A National Resource Center online.
For more information on sexual harassment products to purchase for your business or community, browse the Quickseries® library of guides, including: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.