Being a victim of sexual harassment is demeaning. That’s why as many as three-quarters of U.S. employees that experience unwanted advancements in the workplace ignore it, and fail to report the harassment to their superiors. Of those that are silent, it’s estimated that a quarter would rather take a PTO day to alleviate the uncomfortable situation, while half would rather suffer in the office, leading to reduced productivity.

Establishing a culture that discourages sexual harassment in the workplace

When it comes to sexual harassment efforts, most U.S. employers are focused on defense, compliance and claims prevention. While these are all critically important, corporate America should also be looking at the issue offensively, striving to create a culture in the workplace that fosters respect for all employees.

Corporate culture, or the “personality of the company,” is the essence of the employee experience in good times and in bad. Creating the right corporate culture will do more than just avert a sexual harassment crisis – it’ll set the right tone for the entire organization. But, it doesn’t come easy. Consider the following steps to building a healthy corporate culture.

Step 1: Train everyone. The number one reason employees don’t do what they’re supposed to do is because they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. Sounds obvious, but unfortunately, it’s not. Training needs to move beyond just telling employees what not to do, and should instead present clear expectations, provide resources to help employees understand accountability and how their actions do, or don’t fit within the company’s culture. Employees should also be told that reporting harassment won’t result in retaliation, such as a negative employment action.

Studies show that the most effective training is in person, interactive and tailored for the specific workplace.1 For example, training warehouse workers should differ from training school teachers and stock brokers.

Step 2: Put methods in place. Where policies and procedures are lacking is where the greatest risk for sexual harassment lies. Having a policy around romance in the workplace clearly outlines expectations of managers and employees when it comes to personal relationships. Policies like these are important because sexual harassment issues can arise out of a previously consensual relationship, or when one has direct control over another’s employment. Having well thought-out policies that treat all employees – C-suite, managers and entry-level workers the same – is critical. 

Step 3: Assign leadership to back it. Companies can put policies and procedures in place and train managers and employees to work together, but if the leadership of the company doesn’t exhibit those behaviors then they won’t be successful. Leadership must model good boundaries. Leading by example, managers that show respect for one another and those across the workforce will breed an open, honest corporate culture. Engaging in training, feedback, coaching and mentorship from the top down, all create an environment of engagement that can foster healthy discussions when tougher issues arise – like sexual harassment in the workplace.

Step 4: Set up a reporting structure. Because many victims won’t report sexual harassment in the workplace, the EEOC suggests making it easier for employees by: 1. Designating multiple mangers to take harassment complaints. This increases the odds that victims will have someone they’re comfortable with and 2. Accountability also includes a reward system. If leadership holds managers accountable and recognizes and rewards responsiveness to anti-harassment efforts by managers, that speaks volumes.

Step 5: Have the right coverage. An employer can do everything right – establish a positive corporate culture, execute effective training, institute policies and procedures, engage leadership and create a large reporting structure – and they could still face a claim.

It has never been more important for employers to secure the right employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) before they need it.

While these efforts may seem obvious, the reality is that the training employees in common courtesies and fostering a corporate culture that is respectful toward everyone is critical. Remembering the right and wrong way to talk to people, appropriate parameters for both verbal and non-verbal communications creates a corporate culture that is safe for everyone.


1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27088240