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Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies. In this article, the author investigates the common problems employers have with ineffective sexual harassment policies.
Our research began with a simple question: If 98% of organizations in the United States have a sexual harassment policy, why does sexual harassment continue to be such a persistent and devastating problem in the American workplace? As evidenced by recent headlines regarding ongoing sexual harassment in the National Park Service, Uber, and Fox News, it seems clear that sexual harassment policies have not stopped the problem they were designed to address.
Two bodies of research provided us with a possible direction as we explored the relationship between sexual harassment policies and outcomes. First, scholars convincingly argue that sexual harassment is embedded in organizational culture. In other words, sexual harassment serves an important cultural function for some organizations. And as any executive who has tried to lead cultural change knows, organizational culture can be immutable.
Second, organizational cultures are embedded in a larger national culture in which men have traditionally been granted privileges over women. It does not take a deep analysis to recognize this truth. Women are typically paid less, regardless of education, qualifications, or years of service. There are more CEOs named John leading big companies than there are female CEOs. The male-centric nature of our national culture is so pervasive that even many women are male-centered, aligning themselves with men and masculinity to tap into male privilege while attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to avoid the disadvantaged space that women occupy in the workplace.
All of this means that both men and women can react to sexual harassment by blaming other women for "making trouble" or "putting up with bad behavior," or by suggesting that the sexually harassed women should quit, without considering that perhaps the perpetrators instead of their targets should leave the organization. These attitudes have real consequences. Consider: In the Fox News harassment case, the alleged perpetrators received larger settlements than the targets. Cultures of sexual harassment are thus legitimized by drawing on the larger cultural imperative that privileges men over women.
Into this fraught cultural morass enters a well-intentioned document: the sexual harassment policy. To see how employees interpreted these policies, my colleague Marlo Goldstein Hode and I gave 24 employees of a large government organization a copy of the organization's sexual harassment policy, asking them to read it and then tell us about the policy. We asked them to talk about the policy in groups, and then we interviewed them individually.
We found that the actual words of the sexual harassment policy bore little resemblance to the employees' interpretations of the policy. Although the policy clearly focused on behaviors of sexual harassment, the participants almost universally claimed that the policy focused on perceptions of behaviors. Moreover, although the policy itself made clear that harassing behaviors were harassment regardless of either the gender or sexual orientation of the perpetrator or target, the employees focused almost exclusively on male-female heterosexual harassment. This shift is subtle but significant. For the participants, the policy was perceived as threatening, because any behavior could be sexual harassment if an irrational (typically female) employee perceived it as such. In this somewhat paranoid scenario, a simple touch on the arm or a nonsexual comment on appearance ("I like your hairstyle") could subject "innocent" employees (usually heterosexual males) to persecution as stipulated by the policy. As a result, the organization's sexual harassment policy was perceived as both highly irrational and as targeting heterosexual male employees. The employees shifted the meaning of the policy such that female targets of sexual harassment were framed as the perpetrators and male perpetrators were framed as innocent victims.
To accomplish this shift in meaning, the employees drew on assumptions of women being irrational and highly emotional and on assumptions of men being rational and competent. Through this intertwining of organizational policy, organizational culture, and national culture, the employees inverted the meaning of the sexual harassment policy, making it an ineffective tool in the fight against predatory sexual behavior in the workplace.
How can organizations combat the reinterpretation of sexual harassment policies? This question takes on urgency when we recognize that sexual harassment policies are table stakes in successfully managing the damaging behavior.
Remember that sexual harassment policies are not just legal documents. They are also culturally important, meaning-making documents that should play a role in defining, preventing, and stopping sexual harassment in an organization. The findings from our study suggest very specific language that may be useful in sexual harassment policies:
Sexual harassment is complicated. If it were a simple problem involving just two people, we would have resolved the issue decades ago. But sexual harassment is a complicated, entrenched problem. Systems theory tells us that solutions need to match the complexity of the problem. Writing a policy is complicated, as our study showed. But it's also just a start. No policy, no matter how well crafted, will prevent sexual harassment on its own, nor will it change a culture of sexual harassment. A policy is a first step that needs to be followed by persistent training, a willingness to listen to targets, and a readiness to fire employees who prey sexually on other employees — regardless of how important the predator may be in the organization.
Debbie S. Dougherty, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri and Editor Elect of the Journal of Applied Communication Research.
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