Someone recently asked me what could be done to change what is clearly a culture of sexual harassment in this country. Not just how do we enforce the law, but what do we have to do above and beyond the law to end the harassment epidemic. It's a tough question, but I do have some thoughts.
The first and largest problem is that the victims are afraid to come forward. And there's good reason for that. In my experience, many, if not most, sexual harassment victims who report it suffer some form of retaliation. They are disbelieved, mocked, shunned, ostracized, transferred, demoted, fired or shunted off to never never land where they have no advancement opportunities.
Harassers, on the other hand, are defended and protected. If someone is moved, it is usually the victim.
I blame HR for this, but it's not the fault of hardworking and well-meaning HR people so much as a combination of the "complainer-as-enemy" mentality perpetuated by a large portion of the management-side bar and some really bad cases interpreting the law on sexual harassment. HR folks represent the company, after all. They are trained that their job is to protect the company at all costs. But if we look at the cost in morale, punitive damages, and loss of quality staff that sexual harassers cost employers, then rooting out sexual harassment should be considered a key part of protecting the company.
The result of "complainer-as-enemy" corporate culture is that, when a complaint is made, the tendency is to do everything possible to discredit and disbelieve the complainer and circle the wagons around the harasser. That needs to change.
Here is what I would do if I had a magic wand to change the way the management-side bar and HR handle sexual harassment complaints:
Start from the premise that the complainer is telling the truth. As we've learned from the many women who came forward years later to tell stories, complaining is terrifying. Most sexual harassment victims had to get up a lot of courage to even come to me, much less go to HR. Yet the Supreme Court says they have to complain if they are to win a sexual harassment case. By the time they get to the point of reporting it, you should assume they are telling the truth. Treat them with respect. It took a lot of courage for them to come to you.
Contact former employees. Now that you are assuming the victim is telling the truth, your investigation should be different. Act like the reporter who investigated the Kevin Spacey sexual harassment allegations and see if you can find others who were harassed. Contact former employees who worked with the alleged harasser and see if they will admit to being victimized. These are the folks most likely to have the courage to admit the truth. Most current employees will lie to save their jobs. Investigations right now start from the premise that she or he is lying and try to prove that. If you flip the investigation and try to prove she or he is telling the truth, you might actually uncover some sexual harassment.
Create a truly safe space for reporting. It's almost impossible to keep the identy of the victim secret. Coworkers' natural tendency is to shun and avoid the victim because they don't want to be associated with someone who is radioactive. You have to shut this down. Do not allow coworkers to treat the victim differently. Retaliation should be dealt with on a zero tolerance basis. Even if you do disbelieve the person who complained, you must protect them. Otherwise, you create a culture of fear and nobody else will report sexual harassment.
Punish the harasser, not the victim. I don't care if the harasser is your superstar sales person, the CEO or the founder of the company. The victim should never be the one transferred. If the harasser gets away with it, they will accelerate their behavior. Once you are on notice that they have a propensity to sexually harass, the company will be liable for punitive damages when he does it again. And a culture of sexual harassment spreads and turns the company into a frat house a la Fox. If you allow the harasser to continue harassing, you deserve to get hit with a megabucks punitive damages judgment.
Stop crushing the victim. In the complainer-as-enemy culture that exists right now on the mangement side, victims are put through hell. Management digs up sexual history, performance issues, problems with former employers, every bit of dirt they can to tarnish the victim. When you do that, you create a culture of sexual harassment that wastes valuable productive time at work and brings us to the place we are today. Is it any wonder victims assume that this behavior is expected and they must tolerate it? Why are we surprised when victims don't report it when they see what happens to those that do?
Reward the person who steps up to stop a harasser: Whether it be the victim or a concerned coworker or supervisor, if you investigate and find out that there really is a sexual harasser in the company, you should reward the person who reported it instead of punishing them. This is a brave person who stepped up at the risk of their job. They should promoted and given a bonus, not put on the do-not-promote list or fired.
All of the above, and the fact that it won't happen, is why I predict that once the media attention dies down we'll go back to the way things were before, and sexual harassment will continue to be the norm rather than the exception. Please prove me wrong.
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