How HR can empower staff to speak up

Harvey Weinstein was able to continue his abuse because women kept their silence – here’s what you can do in your workplace

How HR can empower staff to speak up

Everybody’s talking about Harvey Weinstein, aghast he has gotten away with his acts for a long time and silenced numerous women.

Beyond the personality, however, the case also gives us a glimpse into what is happening in workplaces around the world.

Research says that “shame, fear, and cultural norms all allow sexual harassment to go underreported,” reported Vox.

For instance, the US Equal Opportunity Commission says nearly one-third of the 90,000 complaints received in 2015 included a harassment allegation but acknowledges the number is far too low to reflect reality,

The agency also estimates that 75% of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported altogether. Another estimate – a conservative one at that – from the EOC is that one in four people are affected by workplace sexual harassment.   

Vox put together reports, surveys and studies to form a picture of the state of sexual harassment in US workplaces. Following are its conclusions.

1. Some industries have it worse

Sexual harassment is everywhere, but there are work environments that are worse than others, according to Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center.
It is especially prevalent in:

  • Maledominated industries like construction, where women are seen as interlopers
  • Servicebased industries where employers rely on tips and customer approval
  • Women in lowwage jobs, like hotel cleaners or farm workers, because they do not have the bargaining power to push back

Meanwhile, unionized workplaces are less likely to have victims being afraid to come forward. This s not to say, however, that harassment does not happen in these places.

Men could be victims, too. According to a Washington Post survey, 10% of men have experienced sexual harassment at work. According to the EEOC, reports of men experiencing workplace sexual assault have nearly doubled between 1990 and 2009, from 8 percent to 16 percent of all claims.

2. Retaliation is real.

Women hesitate to come forward with their experiences out of fear of retaliation. “These fears are very valid and well-founded,” according to Vox.

“One 2003 study found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation,” the EEOC report found.

Weinstein himself threatened up-and-coming actresses’ careers if they did not engage with him, or place negative stories about them in the media to mire their names in scandal. These tactics aim to isolate and silence victims.

People do start coming forward when others around them do.

Formal reporting is the “least common response” among men and woman who have experienced harassment in the workplace — “approximately 30% of individuals who experienced harassment talked with a supervisor, manager, or union representative,” the EEOC study said. It continued:

“Unwanted physical touching was formally reported only 8% of the time; and sexually coercive behavior was reported by only 30% of the women who experienced it. ... Studies have found that 6% to 13% of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint. 63 That means that, on average, anywhere from 87% to 94% of individuals did not file a formal complaint.”

Victims often fear they won’t be believed, or will receive blame or be subject to professional retaliation — like being fired from their jobs.

3. Underreporting is caused by lack of definition, information.

The EEOC found that reports of incidents grew when the specific acts that count as harassment were more specifically defined in surveys.

When people were just asked outright if they had experienced sexual harassment at work, without the term being defined, one in four reported having experienced some form of harassment in the workplace. When the acts – sexual coercion, crude jokes -- were identified, the number increases to 60 percent.

The numbers tell us there is lack of clarity about what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, and the EEOC recommends training to define previously vague areas.

4. Focused seminars work better.

“Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability,” the EEOC says.

Innovations have been more effective, like bystander training and tailored programs for specific workplaces.  Emphasis on middle managers, seen as the first line of defense against inappropriate behavior, could be crucial.

“These are the people who make all of the difference in the day-to-day lives of organizations and people. When we train middle managers, we don’t just train them about how to spot and address problem behavior — we teach them empirically sound things to do and say when an employee seeks them out to discuss a problem,” said an EEOC researcher.

5. Sexual harassment costs companies millions.

Big companies are averse to sexual harassment claims especially if the alleged harasser is a star. This is why confidential arbitration proceedings are preferred over public lawsuits. 

But even a superstar may be costing the company more than he is bringing in. According to the EEOC, in 1994 the Merit Systems Protection Board, a federal agency that oversee the abuses targeting federal employees, conservatively estimated that “as a result of sexual harassment, job turnover ($24.7 million), sick leave ($14.9 million), and decreased individual ($93.7 million) and workgroup ($193.8) productivity had cost the government a total of $327.1 million.”

“Even if you are rich famous and powerful, you can feel isolated in these situations,” Martin said. “But if you are not rich and famous and powerful, you still have to get your paycheck because it’s between you and homelessness. There are good reasons why it’s hard for women to bring formal complaints in these situations.”

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