Although most employers have sexual harassment policies, incidents of sexual harassment are an overwhelming issue in the American workplace. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) received 6,758 sexual harassment complaints and recovered $40.7 million in damages from various employers. Major employers such as Fox News, Uber and the National Park Service have recently been in the news due to allegations of sexual harassment against management. But even smaller employers that do not make headlines can face the same issues. In order to combat the persistence of sexual harassment in the workplace, employers need to examine their workplace culture and determine what can be done to prevent these issues.
The Importance of Workplace Culture
The workplace is where many individuals spend more than a quarter of their lives. Workplace cultures are formed based on the actions and beliefs of the people within. It is important that the workplace maintain and foster an ethos of good character and integrity. The culture either reinforces or undercuts the employer and its objectives. Further, the workplace culture strengthens or weakens employee engagement and impacts employee happiness and performance. An employer with a poor workplace culture is more susceptible to claims of sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment Linked to Workplace Culture
There are generally two reasons why employers continue to face sexual harassment issues. First, according to the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace Executive Summary and Recommendations from June 2016: “[w]orkplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment.” Second, workplace environments fall within a national culture where pay equities between men and women exist and men are often holding more senior positions than women.
The recent incidents with Uber, as discussed in another article in this month’s Newsletter, demonstrates a situation where an influx of sexual harassment allegations reflected an unsettled workplace culture. Former Uber employees referred to the employer culture as a “Hobbesian environment,” where employees are often turned against each other and where the employer’s leaders are not held accountable for their actions. Uber may have put more emphasis on quickly getting ahead of competitors, while shielding executives from accountability with respect to vital HR matters.
It is also important for an employer to have strong leadership and accountable individuals at the top of the organization, whose beliefs produce a healthy workplace culture. Strong and accountable leaders with progressive beliefs instill such principles in their employees, which in turn produces a healthy and positive work environment. Whereas leaders who tend to be negative and place blame on others creates an environment where employees are unenthusiastic and unengaged.
In addition, it is imperative for leaders to communicate the employer’s priorities. For example, if an employer provides technical training, it also needs to provide sexual harassment training in order to avoid sexual harassment allegations.
Also, employers need to be aware of optics in sexual harassment settlements. For example, in the Fox News case, the alleged offenders were provided with larger settlements than the victims. In addition to looking bad in the public eye, this exemplifies the idea that an employer can pay its way out of trouble.
It is essential for employers to monitor their workplace cultures and make every conceivable effort to strengthen the work environment to avoid sexual harassment incidents like those which took place at Fox News and Uber. To keep with this theme, the accompanying articles in this month’s Newsletter will address preventing sexual harassment in the workplace and investigating complaints of sexual harassment.