Sexual Harassment Training: It’s Not Just About the CEO

sexual harassment not just the ceo

It seems like a new sexual harassment scandal hits the news every day now. We see the moral high ground crumble beneath CEOs, high-profile politicians, and Hollywood icons on a regular basis. At the same time, we get a sense of the entrenchment and persistence of harassment via the #metoo movement.

According to a survey released in 2017 by the American Management Association (AMA), more than 90% of participating organizations have a sexual harassment policy in place. Even with those policies in place, 47% of respondents reported they had witnessed sexual harassment, while 38% indicated that they themselves had been victimized. Alarmingly, only one person in five indicated that they felt comfortable reporting instances of harassment.

Imagine what that means for morale throughout organizations. Imagine what that means for a company’s reputation when trying to recruit new talent. Imagine what that means for mitigating risk – from every manager’s perspective.
Impact on the Organization

Steve Wynn, CEO of a large publicly-traded company, had to step down as a result of sexual harassment. Along with public scandal and negative publicity, shares in Wynn’s company fell and the reputation of the entire organization suffered. But, as we know, it’s not just about the CEO.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the restaurant industry is rife with sexual harassment at every level:

More sexual harassment claims in the U.S. are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other, where as many as 90% of women and 70% of men reportedly experience some form of sexual harassment.

In addition, most restaurant workers see harassment as “part of the job” and rarely complain or report incidents for fear of retaliation. Unfortunately, this culture of silent acceptance can be as prevalent across other industries and at any level.

The misdeeds of CEOs, front-line employees, and management all impact organizations. According to Working Women Magazine, sexual harassment incidents can result in companies losing more than $14 million annually from absenteeism, lower productivity, increased health-care costs, poor morale, and employee turnover.

With 90% of organizations reporting that they have policies and training initiatives on sexual harassment in place, why is this still happening?
A Change in Culture

We all play a role in establishing company culture. Even if it seems that no one is offended by offhand remarks or conduct, those comments or conduct by any employee can bring down the morale and sense of psychological safety throughout an organization.

To mitigate sexual harassment in the workplace, we need to move away from a focus on meeting the regulatory training standards that our executives are focusing on, and toward fostering a culture of respect and awareness.

The external perception of an organization’s culture may blindside CEOs and drive organizations to shift that focus, but it will take internal commitment at all levels to instill a culture of psychological safety and trust.

A successful sexual harassment program needs to be comprised of more than policy. Our training initiatives need to include carefully-developed and detailed scenarios that enable our learners to make choices and learn from the consequences of those choices – all within a safe and respectful environment.

If the numbers tell us that our employees are not reporting what they see, we need to clearly emphasize what to do when anyone in the organization witnesses or experiences sexual harassment. And, we need to establish safe and confidential avenues for reporting these instances.
Listen to the Workforce

Our programs must include feedback channels so that learners can make suggestions on what they feel would help them if, and when, they come face-to-face with a questionable situation. And, we must provide immediate resources, support, and guidance after our training events, so we can meet the learners’ needs and help to foster the kind of culture they desire long after the training is completed.

Once the training, support, resources, and encouragements are in place for employees to confidently support a workplace culture free of harassment, all employees, managers, and executives need to act as models of, and reward, respectful behavior to become openly involved in setting the organization’s tone.

The scandals highlighted in the press remind us how prevalent sexual harassment is in the workplace. It makes no difference who sets the policy, or drives the initiatives, the risk of sexual harassment lies throughout the organization. Therefore, the responsibility falls on each and every one of us to promote a sense of trust and psychological safety in the workplace that lasts long after training is complete.

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By Gabriel Szaszko (VP Performance and Compliance Solutions, Interactive Services)