Organizations have an obligation to provide a harassment-free workplace. But mostly we do what the law requires us to do with training and policies, then wait for the problem to get so bad that the victims finally become brave enough to report it.
We also know that most claims are never reported. The EEOC estimates that 3 out of 4 sexual harassment claims go unreported by either witnesses or the person experiencing the harassment. Fear of retaliation, not wanting to rock the boat or be seen as a troublemaker, and not wanting to get someone in trouble all play into the decision to stay silent.
This means we cannot continue to put the burden of identifying sexual harassment on the victims. Instead, we need to take a more proactive approach to understanding, preventing, and addressing sexual harassment.
How do you do that?
Start with your data. Everything is on the record and reported. It's also evidence. So, it's important to understand what your data reveals and if you find trouble spots, dig deeper.
Here are some of the data you can use to understand where there may be sexual harassment or other problems.
Known sexual harassment claims
Where do they come from? Are there patterns based on a particular manager, department, or division? If so, it's time to look more closely and figure out what's going on.
People who are being harassed often leave to get away from the harasser. They are also fired for performance issues that may have arisen because of the harassment. Look at both voluntary and involuntary turnover by department/manager to see if there are areas with higher than normal attrition.
People who are being harassed don't enjoy coming to work and are likely to be sick or depressed more than normal. Which departments have higher absence rates and are there any departments that have experienced changes in the past several months -- either increased or decreased? If there has been a dramatic decrease in absences, look at that too. Is it because a manager left or was fired?
Sexual harassment is about power and a form of gender discrimination. So, look at the gender makeup of teams, departments, and divisions. Then review the gender of managers within those divisions. In predominately male departments who are managed by males, the conditions exist for women to have a harder time simply because men are and have been in charge.
Who gets promoted, who decides, and how fast do men versus women rise in the organization? This will tell you about power, gender equality, and potential bias in decision making and distribution of authority. Again, look at the data by division, department, manager, and teams.
Is there pay equity at the organization? If not, then it needs to be addressed to avoid equal pay and gender discrimination claims. But this data can also tell you a lot about how resources are valued, who controls them, and who receives them. Both men and women support families and are primary "breadwinners." Yet, our culture continues to assume that men work because they need to, and women work because they choose to. It's simply not true. And it doesn't matter. The law requires organizations to pay people the same wages for the same work regardless of their gender or marital/family status.
Firm-wide engagement scores may be okay, or even good. But have you looked at the scores by department or manager? Have you compared the scores by gender, race, or position in the organizational hierarchy? If the scores are significantly lower in one of these areas, it's time to dig deeper to see what is going on there.
Survey response rates
Sometimes survey response rates will tell you more than the responses themselves. Many employees will respond if they can provide answers the employer wants to hear. If not, then the employee has to decide if it's worth telling the truth and risking trouble or, just as bad, having the organization ignore it or treat it as an outlier. So, employees who don't have positive things to say often choose not to respond at all. Similarly, if you have to coerce employees to answer surveys and get uniformly positive responses, something is probably wrong. It may just be survey fatigue or other issues. Yet, noticing your response rates and how much pressure you have to apply to get responses can tell you a lot about how people are feeling.
Next, it's time to take action
Want to know what comes after the issue has been identified? In my next post, I'll discuss what to do once you've identified an issue.
If you would like to read more, here are some of the other articles in this series and a link to the SHRM webinar we did
SHRM Webinar: Sexual Harassment at Work: It's a Culture Issue