By China Gorman (Guest Blogger) expert in human capital management and moderator for HUB’s upcoming webinar: Not in our workplace: How to protect your employees and company from sexual harassment. Register for free today.

Today’s business environment is hyper-focused on sexual harassment. In Hollywood, business, media, government, and many other sectors, women and men are publicly sharing their stories of being victimized at work by co-workers, supervisors, and those in positions of power.

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 30 percent of women in the U.S. have experienced unwelcome sexual advances from male colleagues; 23 percent reported being harassed by men who had influence over their careers; and 95 percent said that male harassers usually go unpunished.

Many companies are looking at what they can do to prevent harassment. At the same time, many employees are thinking back on their careers and wondering whether their experiences rise to the level of sexual harassment.

There are many layers to that question, and the issue is awash in sexual harassment myths that make it harder to get to the right answer. Gaining a clearer understanding of the behaviors that constitute harassment—and the potential areas of liability exposure employers face—requires busting some of the most commonly held myths.

Sexual Harassment Myth 1: Sexual harassment is only between a man and a woman.

While today’s headlines seem to focus on this type of conflict, sexual harassment can occur between genders or between the same gender, and may also take the form of the following:
  • Lewd or “dirty” jokes being told around the water cooler on a frequent basis
  • Exposure to sexually explicit material posted in offices, cubicles, or on a computer screen
  • Repeated unwelcome invitations or suggestive compliments

Each of these activities creates an environment that could make people uncomfortable and interfere with them doing their work—both key indicators that the behavior is harassment.

Sexual Harassment Myth 2: Employers are not responsible for harassment by non-employees, (e.g. independent contractors or other vendors).

Employers are responsible for ensuring that their employees are free from sexual harassment by anyone at the work site. In addition to other employees, an employer has a duty to ensure that workers are not harassed by contractors, customers, vendors, delivery staff, consultants, volunteers, or others who may frequent the workplace.

Sexual Harassment Myth 3: A witness to sexual harassment cannot make a complaint.

Another common misconception is that only the individual being harassed has a basis to make a complaint. However, creating a hostile environment has an impact on witnesses as well as the target of sexual harassment. Because the environment may have a negative impact on the witness’s ability to do their job, they have legal standing to bring claims of harassment.

Sexual Harassment Myth 4: An employee can’t make a claim of sexual harassment based on social media posts.

Any conduct or behavior that occurs outside of work but is carried back into the workplace – or has an impact on the working environment – may contribute to a hostile working environment and may be relevant to a sexual harassment claim. A good sexual harassment policy may include guidance on acceptable behavior outside of the office—including on social media.

Sexual Harassment Myth 5: If your intentions were benign, your behavior won’t violate a company’s harassment policy.

It’s easy to shrug off harassing behavior with excuses like “he didn’t really mean it,” “she just has a dirty sense of humor,” or “he just doesn’t understand the impact of his actions/words.” Actually, it’s often easier to think “Oh, he/she doesn’t mean it” and continue to try to ignore the harassing behavior or hostile environment than it is to step up and make a complaint to a supervisor or HR representative. After all, speaking up may result in serious consequences for the harasser, and the victim may be concerned about retaliation.

However, when it comes to sexual harassment, intention is irrelevant. It is illegal to sexually harass employees regardless of whether or not the perpetrator intended to harass.

In the current environment, business leaders have a big opportunity to make speaking up safe and recrimination-free for employees experiencing harassment. Doing so requires values that are non-negotiable, a policy and process framework that is fair and trusted, courage to confront wrong-doers regardless of job title, and executive commitment. Without these, your organization’s employer brand will suffer, as will its ability to attract and retain the talent you need to compete in the uber-competitive 21st century market.

Sexual harassment gone unbelieved and unpunished creates an existential threat to your organization. The time is now for companies to take action.

China Gorman is a well-known expert in human capital management from the CEO perspective. Formerly CEO of the Great Place to Work® Institute, President of Lee Hecht Harrison, as well as COO and interim CEO of the Society for Human Resources Management, China works with some of the world's foremost employers, helping them enhance their cultures and optimize their employees' potential.