Receive our blogs in your inbox

HR tips from industry experts.

Human Resources

How Workplace Culture Plays a Role in Sexual Harassment

Christine Batten, PHR
by Christine Batten, PHR on April 3, 2018

coworkers workplace cultureWorkplace culture is the environment that surrounds everyone at work—a system made up of shared beliefs, values and processes. Although it’s not something you can see or touch, workplace culture has a strong influence on people, relationships and expectations. A workplace culture encompasses the life experiences and behaviors of each employee, therefore, workplace culture can certainly play a role in preventing or encouraging sexual harassment in the workplace.

Workplace Culture: EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace

A recent study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shows that workplace harassment remains a persistent problem and that it too often goes unreported. Sadly but not necessarily surprisingly, the least common responses of those who experience it is to actually file a claim.

Clear Policies Build Stronger Workplace Culture

A strong anti-harassment policy is just one step in creating a zero-tolerance workplace culture. To make sure it’s understood and well-received, write the policy in a conversational tone with clear language. Encourage all employees to come forward when they see or hear something discriminatory happening, even if it’s not happening to them. This “bystander intervention training” helps create a culture of respect and awareness. The best sexual harassment policies include the following:

  • Definition
    • Unwelcome sexual advances
    • Requests for sexual favors
    • Other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating hostile or offensive work environment
  • Complaint process and reporting procedures
  • Anti-retaliation provisions

Workplace Culture is Heavily Influenced by Leaders in the Organization

In addition to a thorough policy, walk the walk and talk the talk. Workplace culture is heavily influenced by leaders in the organization, not only because of their role in decision-making, but because of the way they behave. If you say you care about making sure your workplace is free from harassment but don’t show it, your employees won’t believe it and won’t practice it. Furthermore, it’s vital that those who commit acts of discrimination or harassment are held accountable. Here are some of the most important parts of keeping your workplace culture free of harassment:

  • Implement and Enforce Policy
  • Conduct Training With Managers
  • Train Employees
  • Learn to Identify Signs
  • Take Complaints Seriously
  • Prevent Retaliation
  • Investigate Promptly
  • Take Action
  • Document

Sexual harassment isn’t always obvious. In fact, sometimes it comes across as a joke between co-workers. Other times, it may be clearer, like a direct or indirect threat or bribe for unwanted sexual activity. Training employees and supervisors on various scenarios can help create a zero-tolerance workplace culture. Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees. Here are ten examples of sexual harassment:

  1. Sexual innuendoes and comments
  2. Sexually suggestive sounds or gestures
  3. Repeatedly asking a person out for dates
  4. A neck/shoulder massage
  5. Ogling or leering, staring at someone
  6. Rating a person’s looks or sexuality
  7. Name-calling, such as “babe”
  8. Sexual ridicule
  9. Letters, notes, telephone calls or material of a sexual nature
  10. Pervasive displays of pictures, calendars, cartoons or other materials with sexually explicit or graphic content

Transitioning Your Workplace Culture From Negative to Positive

The true cost of a toxic workplace culture goes well beyond potential legal fees. When you consider the mental, physical and economic harm that can come from harassment in the workplace and what it can do to your workplace culture, there’s a compelling case for stopping and preventing it.

It’s not easy, but transitioning your workplace from being one about targets, harassers and laws into one in which co-workers, supervisors and clients all work together to prevent harassment from occurring is the key to success. As you make the transition, communicate your efforts to employees along the way to keep them both encouraged and engaged in making sure your workplace culture remains positive.

Do you have additional questions about how to protect yourself and your employees? Be sure to check out our webinar on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Partnering with FrankCrum grants you access to a team of HR experts. If you have questions about any HR-related issues, call 1-866-697-6576.

One Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Can Cost You Millions

Christine Batten, PHR
Christine Batten, PHR

Christine has over 20 years of HR related experience with a background in labor and employment law.