During flu season, workplaces offer flu shots to employees, hang posters with tips for guarding against the flu and preventing its spread, and educate employees to recognize early symptoms. Employers do not wait helplessly for employees to get sick; they proactively invest in and implement these evidence-based prevention measures to keep their workplaces healthy and productive.
Why don't we address harassment in the workplace like we do the flu, with this same prevention-focused approach?
Research indicates that the incidence of workplace harassment has reached epidemic proportions. And given the broad impact of harassment on the health and well-being of survivors, organizational cultures, and business outcomes alike, the urgency to act is needed. As HR professionals, it's critical that we all work to help our organizations prevent damaging incidents such as sexual harassment from occurring in the first place—even if these incidents stem entirely from behaviors and attitudes rather than viruses or contagions.
Get the Training Right
Traditional harassment prevention training focuses on the wrong symptoms. Historically, harassment prevention training has been used as a defense mechanism against legal action, designed to discourage harassment by informing managers and nonmanagers of its illegality and how to report it. In other words, traditional training viewed lack of knowledge about what harassment looks like as what ailed workplaces.
Because those who harass are often repeat offenders, and their abusive actions generally get more severe over time, the need to stop this behavior early is imperative. However, single training sessions on the definition and consequences of sexual harassment have been shown to be largely ineffective at changing attitudes and actions, and this may be particularly true for those who are engaging in the most harmful or problematic behaviors. Given the outdated nature of the current training model, a more effective approach is to focus on workplace culture and, specifically, unhealthy norms in our workplaces that may be fostering harassment.
Harassing behavior is often reinforced by some of the same social norms that keep bystanders from intervening on the part of those being harassed: a misconception about what is socially acceptable to co-workers. This misperception often causes bystanders to avoid stepping in out of fear that they won't be supported by their colleagues. This inaction then affirms the harasser's (mistaken) belief that his or her behavior is socially supported. And so the cycle of harassment in the workplace continues.
Most employees, however, want to work in a safe, respectful environment and have healthy relationships in the workplace. Harassment prevention training and workplace communication should embrace this desire and rally the healthy majority toward a positive, mutually beneficial goal: ending harassment at work.
To achieve that end, turn to these techniques: social norms marketing and bystander intervention. They are used on academic campuses to prevent sexual assault and have been found to decrease incidents of sexual violence while increasing students' confidence and intention to intervene to prevent assaults.
In organizational environments, social norms marketing and bystander intervention training work by addressing the social norms that typically prevent bystanders from intervening. These include a lack of knowledge of what to do or say when they witness concerning behavior, fear of embarrassment, and a widespread underestimation of others' desire and willingness to help. Overcoming these barriers can be achieved through a combination of harassment prevention training and, like the "cover your cough" slogan and posters used during flu season, messaging campaigns that engage employees to be a part of the prevention solution.
Gather the Data
Organizations cannot address a problem that they can't define. Indeed, even the most robust, innovative harassment prevention programs will be ineffective if they are designed to address a problem that an organization doesn't have.
Like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which monitors data year-round to determine which flu strains should be the focus of the next vaccines, workplace climate surveys should be used to measure employee knowledge, attitudes, perceptions and behaviors related to harassment, so organizations can know how or where to focus their resources. So, for example, if employee responses to a climate survey indicate employees are uncomfortable intervening if they see a co-worker being harassed, the employer could then launch a focused communication campaign to address this discomfort and encourage actions that protect workplace culture.
Root Out the Reasons
Despite its growing efficacy, training itself is only one component of a comprehensive harassment prevention program.
Beyond better educating employees and empowering them to be a part of the solution, employers must address the reasons why the vast majority of those who experience harassment never file an official complaint. This, again, requires collecting data to reveal what those reasons are for a particular department or organization—and then using that data to create robust and consistently enforced anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies; multiple reporting channels; and transparent, objective investigation procedures. And, of course, these policies and procedures must be supported by visible and meaningful investment on the part of leadership and a commitment to holding each other accountable for actions that violate the organization's values or policies.
It is through these efforts that we can inoculate an organization against harassment: by establishing an organizational culture that is intolerant of its occurrence and supportive of those who experience it.
Elizabeth Bille is senior director of harassment prevention at EVERFI in Washington, D.C.