HR Answers: Sexual Harassment a C-Suite Priority

Businesswoman holding up her hand in a strong stop gesture
Theresa Witham Photo
Managing Editor/Publisher

4 minutes

But increased media attention around high-profile sexual harassment cases may not make things easier for HR in 2018.

Two recent surveys about sexual harassment suggest it will be a top priority for company leaders in 2018, but human resources professionals do not expect the increased media attention around high-profile cases to make things easier for HR.

In early December, Next Concept Human Resource Association and Waggl surveyed nearly 1,000 people, with 89 percent agreeing with the following statement: “I anticipate that preventing sexual harassment will become a greater concern of company leadership in 2018, given the recent wave of high-profile cases in the news.” The responses were aligned across various demographics including age, gender and job function. For respondents 61 years and older and for people from large for-profit corporations with 20,000 employees or more, a full 94 percent agreed that sexual harassment will become a greater priority in the coming year.

As a follow-up question, participants were asked whether they agreed with this statement: “I believe that there is room for improvement at my organization for minimizing sexual harassment in the workplace.” In aggregate, 58 percent of participants agreed, but within these responses, there were some interesting demographic splits. For example, only 53 percent of men felt there was room for improvement, in comparison with 60 percent of women. Among respondents 51 to 60 years old only 51 percent agreed, in comparison with 64 percent of respondents 31 to 40 years of age.

In a survey of human resources professionals using Waggl’s crowdsourced listening platform from Dec. 15 to Jan. 22, only 32 percent agreed with the following statement: “The increased media attention around high-profile sexual harassment cases will make things easier for HR in the coming year.” In large for-profit corporations with more than 20,000 employees, only 18 percent of participants agreed.

A full 90 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: “I believe that the best way to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace is to ensure higher standards for leaders.”

“Sexual harassment in the workplace has taken a center stage in recent months, with new high-profile cases coming to light on a daily basis,” says Kate Benediktsson, head of ignition, Waggl.  “But despite existing laws, penalties and mandated trainings, the issue is still far from being resolved. In order to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace, we need to create a culture of respect with zero tolerance for harassment, ensure that leadership sets an example of ideal workplace behaviors, and offer actionable education across the board.”

NCHRA and Waggl also posed an open-ended question in the second survey: “In light of the fact that sexual harassment in the workplace is still a major issue despite laws, penalties, and mandated training to prevent it, what do you think it will take to get leadership to pay attention and take ownership of the issue? Why do you feel this way?”  Crowdsourced responses were ranked by participants.  Here are the top four responses:

  • “Accountability is key, including termination of employment for high profile leaders. HR can raise issues and demand action all day long, but unless the board or CEO is willing to take disciplinary action up to and including termination, there will be no credibility for HR.”
  • “Leaders have to talk about it with their teams. It’s uncomfortable. People don’t want to talk about it. It’s easier to pretend it’s a problem elsewhere. Leaders need to step up and take personal responsibility to make things better.”
  • “It is more than creating high expectations for leaders; it is including the whole organization in the high expectations, offering continuous training and providing a responsible and accountable way for leaders at all levels to address sexual harassment. HR needs to be able to properly investigate claims and not side with leaders, up to and including using a third party, and even terminating HR professionals that do not properly maintain an unbiased opinion and respectability.”
  • “Clearly identify the difference between a mistake in judgment and criminal abuse. The difference between sexual harassment that is accidental is due to misreading the level of trust and current emotional state of the relationship. However, it is very clear when sexual harassment is used to control or coerce or attack another person. Often the poor judgement to say something that makes someone feel uncomfortable can be solved via communication, whereas criminal levels are hard to deal with—people need to understand the difference.”

“From the responses, it’s clear that sexual harassment is not a problem that can be solved by HR alone, but HR practitioners can help to address it by approaching it as more than just a compliance issue,” says Greg Morton, CEO of NCHRA. “Eliminating sexual harassment will require a cultural shift supported by relevant training around respect, communication and work styles. My prediction is that organizations large and small will place greater focus on this issue in 2018, as they recognize the undetermined financial risk associated. For the sake of business viability and continuity, it will demand their attention.”

Theresa Witham is managing editor/publisher at CUES.

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