diverse workforce at office

What Companies Must Learn from #MeToo: 5 Steps to Squelch Sexual Harassment in the Office and Beyond

If you’ve been paying attention to social media these past few weeks, you’ve seen the viral hashtag #MeToo popping up in your newsfeed – two simple words women are using to acknowledge that they’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault.

It’s staggering to see how many people have shared a #MeToo on Facebook and Twitter. Even more so is that for most men and women, these vast numbers aren’t surprising. Which, of course, makes it all the more heartbreaking.

Sexual harassment is a far too common occurrence for most women. According to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, more than half of U.S. women have experienced unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances.

Of that number, 33 million have been sexually harassed, and 14 million sexually abused, in work-related incidents. And 23% of these women have experienced sexual harassment from someone who had influence over their work situation. (1)

It goes without saying that the effects of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace are deleterious. Company culture, retention and productivity all suffer greatly when sexual harassment, or worse, goes unchecked. That it’s still so prevalent begs the question: why is it still happening and what can companies do to effectively prevent it?

A thorough understanding of federal and state laws is critical and the first place to start. But it’s easier to prevent behavior then it is to enforce it with policy, which is why having a more transparent and open company culture, with proactive feedback mechanisms in place, goes a long way.

To help squelch sexual harassment in the office and beyond, here are five things companies should do:

Step 1: Put a strong sexual harassment policy in place

Your company’s sexual harassment policy should be clear and direct, with a definition of sexual harassment and a statement about how your organization is committed to providing a zero-tolerance, discrimination- and harassment-free workplace.

It should also include language about how the policy applies to all employees and that no one who comes forward with a claim will be adversely affected in employment. The policy should live in your employee handbook, where it is easily accessible.

Step 2: Build a diverse workforce

When people bring different perspectives to the table, it strengthens your company’s culture overall. Diversity acts as a buffer against harassment, since it creates a variety of opinions and fosters a feedback-rich environment.

Making diversity and inclusion a priority for your organization can help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and boost your culture, creating more space for innovation and helping you, in turn, recruit more top talent.

Step 3: Address reports of harassment promptly

Any report of harassment should be addressed as soon as possible. Doing so can decrease or eliminate your organization’s liability and also shows employees that this kind of behavior is inappropriate and has consequences.

Cultivating a culture of trust and feedback requires excellent listening skills. From the top down, everyone needs to lead by example. For HR in particular, this means acting promptly upon receipt of a sexual harassment report.

Step 4: Roll out and enforce company-wide harassment prevention training

If a strong sexual harassment policy is the first step towards preventing sexual harassment in the office, company trainings are a critical follow-up, especially if you’re struggling to change your company’s culture. In some states, they’re required by law.

Management especially needs to have a clear and uniform understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment in the office. Trainings help do that, as well as equip managers with the tools they need to handle situations if or when they arise.

Step 5: Cultivate a healthy culture

Having a healthy culture with strong feedback mechanisms in place is key to preventing sexual harassment. As stated above, focusing on diversity and inclusion can help you cultivate a more transparent and engaging environment for your employees.

Having a strong hiring process is another. Each new hire is an opportunity to grow your culture in the direction you want it to go. In turn, your culture becomes a recruiting tool to attract the kinds of candidates you want that align with your mission and values.

Discover how to create a more inclusive culture in our eBook, Guide to Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace.

(1) ABC News/Washington Post Poll: Sexual Harassment, October 2017