Sexual Harassment Prevention Starts with Cultural Change, SHRM CEO Says

SHRM CEO testifies before the California Legislature


Creating and maintaining a harassment-free workplace is not just a legal priority but is also essential for a healthy workplace, said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Speaking Jan. 24 to the California Legislature's Joint Committee on Rules Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response, he said, "HR can be a social force for good."

The subcommittee hearing was on best practices for making cultural changes in an effort to address and eliminate sexual harassment.

The hearing was designed as a bipartisan and bicameral approach to find ways to improve the culture in the state legislature and to craft new policies on sexual harassment.

The committee plans to have a number of conversations with experts and HR practitioners, according to state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles. The focus is on sexual harassment, she said, but the committee should look beyond that to the broader issues of gender equality and creating an overall culture of inclusion. "Now is the time to really push the envelope forward to continue to have conversations about workplace culture and the role women can and must play in the workplace."

Culture vs. Compliance

"Culture always trumps compliance," Taylor said. Relying solely on rules, education and training to prevent or address sexual harassment doesn't work. Employers should also establish a healthy culture by taking swift action, being transparent, and being practical about people and their relationships with one another.

He noted that compliance is a key component of a harassment-free workplace. Yet employers could demand that every employee take 10 hours of sexual harassment training each week and harassment would still happen. "By the same token, we could enforce the strictest policies forbidding workplace relationships but office romance would still happen. You simply can't legislate human behavior."

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

Joelle Emerson of Paradigm Strategy, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm in San Francisco, said that it's important to deploy thoughtful anti-harassment training. Many employers provide training, but it isn't designed well enough to achieve the outcomes employers want, she said. "Training is often really compliance-focused, and it fails to provide bystanders or allies with skills for intervening or speaking up."

Harassment doesn't happen in a vacuum, she added. "Cultures that allow for harassment are usually plagued by other issues as well."

An organization's culture isn't found in its values statement or policies; rather, it is seen in "the way things are really done around here," noted Janet Denhardt, a professor of public administration at the University of Southern California.

"All change occurs within a culture context," she said, noting that respect, inclusion, trust and safety are the qualities displayed in organizations that have the most resilient and productive workforces.

She cautioned that culture is established slowly and that it isn't learned through the employee handbook; employees are exposed to it through their observations in the workplace and their conversations with co-workers.

"The good news is that culture can be changed," she said. "Culture is collective. The more inclusion the better. You don't want this to be a women's issue. You don't want this to be a men's issue. This is an everyone issue."

Ending Harassment in the Workplace

Hollywood, Wall Street and the legislature are all susceptible to sexual harassment situations, Taylor told the subcommittee. "These workplaces are driven by complex power dynamics. A few people hold the careers and the futures of many others in their hands."

He noted that these workplaces tend to be male-dominated—but that sexual harassment is not limited by gender. "Men are also victims, and women are also perpetrators."

Sexual harassment is about power, he said, and, at least for now, much of the power in many workplaces belongs to men. He told the subcommittee it's time for a cultural transformation, adding that the state legislature can lead by example for the rest of California and for the nation.

SHRM is committed to eliminating all forms of harassment in the nation's workforce, Taylor said. SHRM's perspective is unique because the organization represents not just one segment of the employment sector but all industries, including companies and workforces large and small. "Our members have seen it all, and they let us know what works—and what doesn't," he said.

Rules, education and training are necessary, but they will never be enough. "It is a healthy culture that staves off sexual harassment," Taylor noted. "Cultural change is the most important thing you can do—that all of us can do—to make sure that all people in the workplace are respected, valued and empowered to succeed."


Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Break California’s intricate labor code.

Successfully interpret and apply California employment law to your organization’s people practices.

Successfully interpret and apply California employment law to your organization’s people practices.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.