Sex-based harassment in the workplace is a longstanding issue that has recently shifted in importance (and controversy) due to high-profile cases and social movements such as #MeToo. (Sex-based harassment is defined as “behavior that derogates, demeans, or humiliates an individual based on that individual’s sex.”1 We use the term sex-based rather than sexual harassment because it is more comprehensive. It includes behaviors that are not sexual in nature, such as referring to women as bitches.)
We have reached a tipping point that has led to more “honest discussions of what’s not OK at work, but also toward silence and exclusion, a quiet backlash.”2 Compliance-based solutions (e.g., zero tolerance policies and formal reporting channels) currently in use by most organizations are not able to prevent sex-based harassment or the backlash occurring when organizations step up their enforcement efforts. Recognizing the failure of legalistic approaches, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) established a task force in 2015 to study the issue of workplace harassment and concluded that:
- workplace harassment remains a persistent problem,
- most targets do not report harassment,
- there is a business case for addressing workplace harassment,
- leadership plays a critical role,
- most training is ineffective, and
- a different approach is required.
Giving Voice to Values (GVV) is a skills-based approach that empowers people to move from silence to voice; it helps us see that one person may experience an interaction as friendly banter whereas another may experience it as disrespectful. Recognizing value systems that underlie actions is a powerful lever for opening up conversations that typically do not occur in organizations with compliance-based mentalities.
In this article, we explain how the GVV approach3 dovetails with the EEOC task force’s conclusions and recommendations and how organizations can improve their responses to sex-based harassment with this approach.4 We believe implementing GVV is an effective way to address all of the EEOC recommendations, but will focus specifically on the impact for targets, the organization, and bystanders. For an overview, see Figure 1.
The overall emphasis of GVV is on developing confidence and skill to give voice, to act on one’s values. We know that practice increases the likelihood of actually giving voice. Consequently, the intention of GVV is to practice voicing in order to build this muscle.3 The need to encourage and enable voice with regard to preventing sex-based harassment is an implicit theme in the EEOC’s report, which stated that “roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.”5 The report noted that bystanders to harassment are also reluctant to voice concerns and that leaders play a central role in preventing harassment by changing norms in ways that encourage a sense of accountability, community, and shared responsibility for ending harassment.
GVV provides a different language for conversations about sex-based behavior, one that aligns with values-based leadership. This is critical because “effective harassment prevention efforts, and workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, must start with and involve the highest level of management of the company.”5 The GVV approach can build an organizational culture of candor that enables targets, bystanders, and leaders to take action to prevent, and/or respond effectively to, sex-based harassment.
Workplace Harassment Often Goes Unreported
The EEOC task force concluded that workplace harassment is a persistent problem that often goes unreported for a variety of reasons. Many targets want to report but fear others will not believe them, loss of control once they make a formal report, retaliation, and exclusion. The choice to voice is even more complicated when it comes to addressing questionable sex-based behavior that is nuanced, ambiguous, and open to interpretation. Not all sex-based behavior constitutes illegal harassment; it exists on a continuum from unconscious bias (e.g., a patient assuming a woman in a white lab coat is a nurse and not a doctor) to egregious and illegal behavior (e.g., sexual assault).
When employees experience ‘gray zone’ behavior, they often remain silent. Feelings of confusion and awkwardness abound. As Joyce Thomas-Villaronga, president of the local United Auto Workers chapter, explained “I know what to do if somebody touches me and says something awful to me, but the subtle things are almost worse because you can’t control it.”2 Comments like this help us understand why targets of harassment typically engage in passive coping behaviors such as avoidance and support seeking rather than confrontation or reporting. However, there are several aspects of the GVV approach that can help targets address harassment in more direct and effective ways.
The GVV pillar of normalization alerts us to “expect value conflicts so that you approach them calmly. Overreaction can limit your choices unnecessarily.”3 Forewarned is forearmed. The GVV concept of normalizing suggests we should assume values conflicts related to sex-based behavior will emerge. Normalization does not suggest acceptance of the status quo. Rather, it encourages a pragmatic realism that can empower us to effectively respond rather than being disabled by shock or surprise. Learning to anticipate the types of situations we might encounter (i.e., given your unique job tasks and industry, you can imagine the types of sex-based behavior, harassment, and/or discrimination that might occur) allows us to understand the need for us to respond and envision effective methods of responding.
Once we acknowledge current workplace realities regarding sex-based behavior and harassment, GVV teaches us to formulate responses that help us make the choice to voice. Voice can take a variety of forms. Expressing concern is a direct form of voice. Suppose that during our team meeting, my coworker says “sex discrimination does not exist.” I could tell them, “I thought the comment was unnecessary.” However, ‘voice’ includes a variety of other actions as well. I could take a questioning approach, such as, “I’d like to hear more about your thinking on that topic.” I could also share or ask for information. I could ask, “What leads you to believe that sex discrimination doesn’t exist? I have a few examples that I could share with you.” I could also provide details on past precedents, such as, “Of the last 20 employees receiving promotions in our company, only 20 percent were women. That suggests discrimination may be an issue.” Although not applicable in this example, voicing can also take the form of silence (i.e., not laughing at a joke) or identifying and gathering allies (i.e., determining if others share your concerns).
A Compelling Business Case for Stopping and Preventing Harassment
Sex-based harassment feels so personal we can forget that it has impact beyond the people immediately involved in a situation. “Workplace harassment first and foremost comes at a steep cost to those who suffer it…beyond that, workplace harassment affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm. All of this is a drag on performance—and the bottom-line.”5 GVV teaches us to use stakeholder analysis to expand our thinking about the situation, connecting it to the things that are most meaningful to the people we hope to influence by giving voice. Stakeholder analysis begins with identifying all the people, groups, and organizations that are impacted by voicing and acting on perceived sex-based behavior at work (e.g., current and future targets of harassment, the company itself, employees who fear false allegations, etc.).
Each of these stakeholders has a vested interest and will be impacted, both positively and/or negatively, whether the situation is skillfully addressed or is avoided and ends up going viral on social media (see Table 1). For example, other employees in the organization may have had similar, or worse, experiences and what is at stake for them is whether the behavior continues or is adequately addressed—if you give voice, it might stop; if you do not give voice, it is likely to continue. The company itself has a stake in that sex-based harassment has an insidious and negative impact on corporate culture, employee well-being, and productivity. Giving voice can decrease the potential for future harm to employees, protect the company from further negative publicity and legal exposure, and initiate positive change. By not giving voice, the best you can hope for is the status quo.
By identifying stakeholders and what will make them care about this issue, GVV makes our thinking more strategic and shows us how to leverage this web of perspectives and interests to become more persuasive. With regard to sex-based behavior in the workplace, understanding the stakes for employees who fear false allegations is essential. When voicing in sex-based harassment situations, this is a unique and crucial consideration. Changes regarding how organizations address sex-based harassment pose a threat to some employees as described by the following quote: “It’s a very scary time for young men in America…You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life and somebody could accuse you of something.”6 The fear of being falsely accused threatens one’s identity as a good person and leads to defensiveness and backlash.7 GVV anti-harassment training creates the space to surface these concerns, explore their veracity, and prepare more effectively to address them.
It’s on Us
The EEOC task force confirmed what management researchers have known for more than 20 years, that “we cannot be complacent bystanders and expect our workplace cultures to change themselves.”5 Researchers noted the pivotal role of bystanders and need to provide training to all employees regarding their role in preventing sex-based harassment and identified types of actions bystanders could take (e.g., redirecting the harasser’s focus) as well as some characteristics of observers (e.g., idealism) and situational factors (e.g., perceived harm) that influenced their intentions to intervene.8
Although factors such as fear inhibit both targets and bystanders from giving voice, bystanders to sex-based harassment face an additional hurdle—the notion that it is a personal issue that should be resolved by the people involved. There are two primary reasons for this perception. First, there are taboos in many cultures against intervening in personal issues (especially those between men and women). This influences how bystanders interpret workplace interactions between men and women, especially those that involve issues of sexuality, sex, or gender.9 Second, compliance-based policies and procedures (e.g., requiring targets to report harassment through formal channels) hold targets responsible for ending their harassment, and there is no legal requirement for non-supervisory employees to take action. Therefore, even when observers interpret sex-based behavior as problematic, they may not think it is their place to get involved.
Training Must Change
We know that most training has not been effective in preventing sex-based harassment because “it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”5 However, several approaches to training that go beyond compliance have potential for preventing sex-based workplace harassment. The EEOC task force believes that bystander intervention and workplace civility training show promise, and we propose incorporating GVV to improve anti-harassment training.
Bystander Intervention Training. Based on success of bystander training in combating sexual violence in educational settings,10 the EEOC task force believes this approach can help prevent sex-based harassment in the workplace. Although relatively nascent, innovative programs have reduced implicit gender bias in hiring decisions and improved recognition of, and ability to intervene safely in, a range of microaggressions based on gender, race, and other marginalized statuses.11, 12 We spoke with Jane Stapleton, President of Soteria Solutions, about how her organization is modifying its evidence-based college program for use by employers. She noted that despite potential for bystander training to be effective in the workplace, increasing demand has led to a proliferation of training programs that are unlikely to improve bystander intervention because they ignore best practices (e.g., rather than focusing on skill development, they provide only basic knowledge of intervention strategies). However, the EEOC offers employers a program that is interactive, skill-based, delivered on-site using case studies and facilitated discussion to teach bystanders when and how to intervene, and focused on values of respect and fairness.13
Giving Voice to Values Training. GVV is a skills-based approach incorporating best practices identified for bystander intervention training that complements it by extending the focus beyond bystanders to include targets of harassment, managers, and other organizational stakeholders.4 One unique aspect of GVV is its focus on overcoming rationalizations for inaction—it teaches us to “anticipate the typical rationalizations given...and identify counterarguments. These rationalizations are predictable and vulnerable to reasoned response.”3 GVV-based training helps employees recognize and respond to rationalizations, thereby increasing the probability that they will take action. The argument that sex-based harassment is a personal issue for targets of such behavior is a rationalization bystanders might use to justify inaction. For example, “I’m not required to get involved and most people wouldn’t.” One response to counter this rationalization is “I do lots of things that I’m not required to do. Maybe I should focus on what I can do rather than what I’m required to do.”
GVV helps us recognize and defuse black-and-white thinking. When an issue is framed as a choice between two options, it is usually not that simple. The assumed dichotomy is not real. For example, framing an incident of sex-based harassment as a conflict between truth versus loyalty is a false dichotomy (e.g., “that can’t be true, X is such a nice guy”). So are the frames of individual versus community (e.g., “reporting this is going to hurt the company”); short-term versus long-term (e.g., “but this isn’t something that is a priority right now, we have bigger problems to deal with”); and justice versus mercy (e.g., “I’m sure it was a mistake, maybe you/I should just let this one go?”). GVV teaches us to prepare skillful responses like: “It is because X is a nice guy that I am raising this issue. I wonder if he’s aware of the impact of his comments. I’m concerned that not raising it with him might put his career at risk,” and “It’s out of concern for the company that I’m raising this issue. Addressing this demonstrates we are being responsive and enables us to identity the nature and scope of the problem. Ultimately, the company culture and long-term sustainability depend on addressing this rather than letting it go.”
In addition to black-and-white thinking, we are vulnerable to other cognitive biases: obedience to authority, social proof, false consensus, over-optimism, slippery slope, cognitive dissonance, etc. The rationalizations we hear, both from ourselves and others, are meant to dissuade us from giving voice. However, we can become skillful in identifying, naming, and responding to them. For example, we might think to ourselves, “When that happened in the elevator, no one else seemed to mind, so I must be overreacting.” Or we might hear some version of this from others, such as “ I didn’t see it that way, and I haven’t heard anyone complain; do you think it’s just you?” We can learn to recognize the cognitive bias of social proof in these statements (i.e., taking cues from others about appropriate behavior in awkward situations). We can become skillful in naming and challenging such bias (e.g., “I wonder what evidence I/we have that my/your assumption is true. Did I/you ask others how they experienced what happened?”).
Two other central elements of anti-harassment training incorporating GVV are scripting and peer coaching. One reason for not voicing or acting is the lack of cognitive scripts regarding what to say and do.9 GVV involves writing an actual script for giving voice. Scripting a conversation includes writing out the language you will use to 1) open the conversation and frame the issue, 2) respond to the rationalizations you might hear, and 3) end the conversation. The script becomes a decision tree of possible responses that you can use in the actual conversation. GVV stresses the importance of practicing your script in front of others and getting their feedback. Participants experience the difference between writing and speaking their script and learn that practice helps. The group debrief of these role-plays is also very powerful as individuals explore the nuances of talking about sex-based behavior in the workplace.
In summary, the efficacy of efforts to address problematic sex-based behavior in the workplace can be improved by taking actions in line with recommendations from the EEOC task force’s report.5 We have described the conclusions of the task force and how GVV provides solutions to issues identified in the report. GVV is particularly well suited to building skills required to discuss sex-based behavior in the workplace, before it escalates to unlawful behavior. Whether your company is interested in truly harnessing the benefits of diversity, or just avoiding lawsuits, it may be time to get rid of the online, compliance-focused, sexual harassment awareness training, and get people together to talk about sex-based behavior in the workplace.
Lynn Bowes-Sperry, Ph.D., is Professor of Management at Western New England University. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Stacie Chappell, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Management at Western New England University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.