How to Improve the Emerging Culture of Sexual Harassment

Valerie is currently the CEO and owner of Valerie Martinelli Consulting, LLC. in which she offers Life, Leadership, and Career coaching for women as well as various Management and Human Resource consulting services such as program development, management, and evaluation, human resource audits, and employee handbook and other policy developments.

Sexual harassment has been a decades old problem in our workplaces and it is still a growing issue. Workplace sexual harassment is defined by the EEOC as unwelcome sexual advances or behavior of a sexual nature that excessively interferes with the performance of an individual’s job or produces an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment can range from persistent offensive sexual jokes to inappropriate touching to posting offensive material in the workplace. Sexual harassment at work is a significant issue and can happen to both women and men.

Sexual harassment can be prevented if the proper policy, procedures, and protocols are in place. That has been evidenced in recent cases by FOX News, Uber, and the National Park Service that they are not stopping the problem that they were designed to address. Let’s explore why.

Does Organizational Culture Lead Us to Harassment?

Organizational culture is known as a system of shared beliefs, values, and assumptions that govern how others behave in a workplace. These shared values have a strong influence on the people in the organization and dictate how they dress, act, and complete their jobs. A company’s culture is its basic personality, the essence of how its people work and interact. Culture is the self-sustaining pattern of behavior, which determines how things are achieved. So, in the case of sexual harassment, does this mean that corporate culture is to be blamed? Is sexual harassment embedded in corporate cultures? If we were to say yes to this question then we are saying that sexual harassment serves as a significant cultural function.

Workplace culture is composed of instinctive, repetitive habits and emotional responses, which cannot be replicated. They are also constantly evolving and self-renewing because what people think, feel, and believe is reflected and shaped by the way they conduct their business. Formal efforts to change a culture rarely manage to get to the heart of what motivates people. It also is extremely difficult to completely root out the evil, including sexual harassment. You can try to put new messages and values on the walls or in emails but employees will carry on with habits that are familiar and comfortable. However, since it isn’t possible to replace it, it is possible to work realigning some of the more useful mechanisms. The important part is to make use of what cannot be changed by utilizing some of the emotional forces within your current culture differently.

There are three dimensions of corporate culture that affect its alignment, including symbolic reminders, principle behaviors, and mindsets, such as attitudes and beliefs that are widely shared but visible. Behaviors are typically the most powerful determinant of concrete change because what we do matters more than what we say or believe.

This leads us to the culture is embedded in within each organization. We have a national problematic culture of misogyny and we need to begin to make changes with a very strong call to action inside and outside of our organizations.

Organizational culture is central to sexual harassment because it contains emotional energy and influence. It is the negative influence associated with sexual harassment that harms organizations.


A National Culture of Misogyny

Organizational cultures of sexual harassment also reference a larger national problem, which is the accepted culture of misogyny. Men have customarily been granted privileges over women. For example, women are paid less, regardless of their qualifications, education, and years of experience. There are more male executives than there are female executives. The male-centric nature of our national culture is so pervasive that women have become male-centered by aligning themselves with men to tap into the male privilege while attempting to avoid the disadvantaged space that women occupy in the workplace.

Men and women have both reacted to sexual harassment by blaming other women for causing trouble, putting up with bad behavior, or suggesting that the sexually harassed women should quit, without even considering that the perpetuators should be the ones leaving the organization. These attitudes have real-life consequences. If the alleged perpetuators receive larger settlements than the targets, then this is a problem. Cultures of sexual harassment are legitimized by drawing on the greater cultural imperative that benefits men over women.

So, how can sexual harassment policies have an impact? Remember, these are not just legal documents. They are culturally significant, meaning-making documents that should play a role in defining, preventing, and stopping sexual harassment in an organization. To do so, they should include:

  • Culturally suitable, emotion-filled language. Findings have suggested that if this language is not added then organizational members will add their own. Policies tend to be stripped of emotions, it is crucial for policy creators to recognize that policy creation is one of the most emotion-filled activities that organizational leaders are tasked with achieving. Since sexual harassment is a topic that is so loaded with emotions, the creation of these policies can become even more emotionally challenging.
  • Sexual harassment policies should include bystander interventions as a required response to predatory sexual behavior. Most, if not all, policies place the responsibility for reporting harassment exclusively on the target, which puts them in an extremely vulnerable position. If the target reports the behavior, they are likely to be viewed with suspicion by their colleagues and become socially isolated from their co-workers. If they do not report the sexual harassment, then it is likely to continue unabated, creating harm for the targeted employee, and wider organizational problems as well. By mandating bystander intervention, it relieves the target of their sole responsibility for responsibility for reporting and stopping predatory sexual behavior. It also puts the responsibility of establishing a healthier organizational culture on all members.

Changing the Culture of Sexual Harassment

Organizational culture is central to sexual harassment because it contains emotional energy and influence. It is the negative influence associated with sexual harassment that harms organizations. There are some principles that can be adopted for an organization to learn to deploy and improve in a manner that will increase the odds of financial and operational success.

  • Work with and within your current cultural situations. Deeply embedded cultures cannot just be replaced with an upgrade or an overhaul. To a degree, your culture is what it is and it contains components that provide natural advantages as well ones with components that act as brakes. In order to work with your culture effectively, it must be understood, the traits that are preeminent and consistent recognized, and discerned under what types of conditions these traits are a help or a hindrance.
  • Change behaviors and mindsets will follow suit. It is a common belief that behavioral change will follow mental shifts when it just is not true. Culture is a matter much more of doing than saying. You can tell people how to act and what type of behavior is expected; however, they must also witness it from the top leaders. One of the biggest problems with eliminating a corporate culture of sexual harassment and unwanted advances is that it if it has been previously accepted and condoned at the top then it’s already an issue. Attempting to change a culture from top-down messaging, training and development programs, and identifiable cues seldom changes people’s beliefs or behaviors. Modifications to key behaviors- modifications that are concrete, actionable, repeatable, evident, and quantifiable- are great starting points.
  • Focus on a few critical behaviors. It is difficult to change everything. Concentrate on those behaviors that have the greatest impact. For example, what behaviors have the most influence in promoting sexual harassment? Why are they acceptable? Change what needs to be improved to rid the organization of those specific behaviors.
  • Don’t let formal leaders off the hook. Culture should not be pushed into the silos of human resources professionals. Leaders in all parts of the organization are critical in championing and safeguarding desired behaviors and reinforcing cultural alignment. The signaling of emotional commitment sets the tone for others to follow.
  • Demonstrate impact quickly. It is extremely important to showcase the impact

of cultural efforts on business results as quickly as possible because when people hear about new high-profile initiatives and efforts and then don’t see any activity related to them for several months, they will grow detached and skeptical.

  • Align programmatic efforts with behaviors. Informal mechanisms and cultural interventions must complement and integrate with the more common formal organization components, not function at cross-work purposes.
  • Actively manage your cultural situation over time. When aligned with strategic and operating priorities, culture can provide hidden sources of motivation and energy that can accelerate changes faster than formal processes and programs.

Unfortunately, changing the national culture of sexual harassment is much more complicated and will take much more time. More than half of the allegations that have made it to the EEOC have resulted in no charge. Of the cases, the EEOC investigated in 2015, half of them were dismissed because there was no reasonable belief that discrimination occurred. 75% of people who experience sexual harassment do not report it. Witnesses are also unlikely to come forward. To reverse these statistics, women need to feel safe reporting it. There is an uncertainty about the future of their careers or retaliation if they do so. By creating a culture in which women feel safe coming forward, then we can put the blame where it belongs- on the perpetuator.

We are each responsible in creating a culture of fairness, equality, and safe reporting. If you witness sexual harassment, put yourself in that individual’s shoes and deeply consider how you would feel. We can reverse the tide if we lend an ear, offer to assist, report it ourselves, or no longer tolerate the behavior. I urge to choose your action wisely and make a positive cultural difference.

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