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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What the Numbers Tell Us

In ACC Docket’s April 2018 issue, the editorial staff interviewed four in-house counsel around the world for the HR & Employment-themed article entitled “#MeToo: The Global Impact of the Sexual Harassment Movement.” This feature details their perspectives on how the international phenomenon has changed legal and HR departments and what in-house counsel can do to ensure the safety and well-being of their employees. We followed up with Elizabeth Bille, one interviewee and general counsel and corporate secretary for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and she provided the following statistics and insights on sexual harassment in the workplace.

A s news was breaking early this year around high-profile cases of sexual harassment in Hollywood, the media, and government, SHRM surveyed approximately 500 HR directors and leaders about what they were experiencing in their own workplaces. We also tapped more than 1,200 non-management employees for their perspectives.

The research, which spanned more than 15 industries and included employers of all sizes, revealed that policies and training are simply not enough to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Here’s what we found:

Incidents are overwhelmingly unreported

This is not news, but the scope of the silence is concerning. Of the 11 percent of non-management employees who said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past 12 months, three-quarters (76 percent) said they did not report it for reasons that included fear of retaliation or a belief that nothing would change. This finding is consistent with what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has previously reported.

Policies alone aren’t preventative

Even though 94 percent of organizations say they have anti-harassment policies in place, 36 percent of HR professionals reported at least one sexual harassment allegation at their organization within the past 12 months. The same percentage reported an increase in allegations in the past year.

Sound policies, investigation procedures, and training are important, but they are of little effect when people don’t believe that they can report harassment without reprisal and when organizations do not protect people who report. More work is needed in this area to address cultural dynamics that may be causing harassment incidents to go unreported.  

Of course, in many cases, problematic behaviors and situations do not rise to the legal definition of harassment. There is a vast gray area between how the law defines harassment and other behaviors that still damage careers and demoralize workforces. Many organizations are recognizing the impact that these behaviors have on culture — and their possible link to future harassment — leading 49 percent of organizations to revamp their training to include these broader concepts of “workplace civility.”

Culture always trumps compliance

Every decision our organizations make reinforces or undermines culture — from who is recruited, rewarded, and recognized to how to prevent bad behavior or handle it when it occurs.

In healthy workplace cultures, harassment situations are averted or resolved long before they rise to the level of legal claims being filed. When disrespectful or harassing behavior is observed or experienced, the community steps in and makes clear that such behavior will not be tolerated by or for anyone at any level. An organizational culture that is rooted in healthy norms, and that maintains high expectations and standards of behavior, is a hostile environment indeed for attempted harassment.

The good news is that organizations are responding to the culture question. Sixty-two percent of survey respondents said their organizations are currently assessing their culture to identify potential risks for sexual harassment. Forty-four percent are developing accountability measures for preventing and responding to sexual harassment.  

As #MeToo has made clear, more needs to be done to eradicate harassment in the workplace. Compliance is essential, but organizations must also be intentional about their culture — understanding it, improving it, and living it. Everyone in the organization, regardless of tenure, title, or contribution to the bottom line, must be respected, heard, and held equally accountable for their behaviors.

Getting culture right is no longer a bonus — it is an imperative with serious legal implications. I am encouraged to see organizations taking up the challenge.

About the Author

Elizabeth BilleElizabeth Bille is general counsel and corporate secretary for the Society for Human Resource Management.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.