Harassment in the Workplace | Of Mercer

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Harassment in the Workplace

From the pushback women face when reporting their experiences to the ways that we can create safer environments, we wanted to bring attention to workplace harassment. 

As discussed in one of our previous articles, the progression of women in the workplace has been delivered to us on the backs of revolutionary women pushing for legislation changes, culture changes, and equal rights. This National Women’s Month, we wanted to be as candid and open about this discussion as possible. While there is so much to celebrate about the accomplishments of women today, we also wanted to touch upon some forces that women face which affect their mental health and career advances. One of these, is harassment in the workplace. No matter the industry, about 40% of women have reported to have faced harassment in the workplace; this number has not changed since the 1980s. In light of this staggering number, it’s important to highlight the experiences that women have gone through, the pushback they face when reporting their experiences, and ways that as a culture, we can move to decrease this number.   

While workplace harassment against women has been alive since women started working, it wasn’t until recently that women started to come out in large numbers to voice their experiences, with the MeToo Movement. In review, the urge for transparency about workplace harassment is embarrassingly new-  but now that there is finally a shift in culture, the hope is that women’s stories will resonate with others. The MeToo Movement unmasked serious offences in corporate America through the lens of Susan Fowler. A former Uber engineer for years, Fowler left the company and carried her experiences with her, which eventually lead to her writing an extensive blog post listing these experiences. Namely, the lack of action regarding her reports of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The course of events immediately started off inappropriately; after a superior solicited sex from her through text, she reported the messages to HR. In most corporate settings, we expect there to be procedure for things like this- a slap on the wrist, a firing, anything at all. None of this happened. Instead, the HR representative gave Fowler the options of switching teams, or staying on her current team and understanding her superior who sexually harassed her would give her a poor performance review. Unfortunately, this experience is not unique to Susan Fowler. Not only do companies today still refuse to reprimand the sexual harasser so as not to “ruin their career,” but they put the burden on the victim to change their own situation in the workplace. This is especially true to offenders who are particularly good at their jobs, where the company would rather they harass coworkers than let them go. Following her experience with sexual harassment, Fowler faced many more instances of discrimination which were again dismissed by HR. The aftermath of Fowler’s tell-all was an internal investigation by Uber that lead to numerous firings of regular level and senior employees. For Susan Fowler and many other women, the unfortunate truth is that for many women, justice is only granted when there is public outcry- and it still occurs after. Just recently there were reports of sexual harassment by the official White House Doctor, which was reported as a trend of harassment among those in power and considered indispensable at their jobs.

Many of these public allegations usually come after a series of events like an investigation or after the victim leaves their job, which causes speculation as to why the victim didn’t speak out earlier. In fact, according to a Pew Research Center Poll, 38% of men believe that false allegations are a major problem, while 58% of women report that not being believed in their allegations is a major roadblock. Further, women of color suffer from this more, and have reported larger numbers of leaving companies because of sexual harassment. As we know from Susan Fowler’s story, there are many roadblocks to reporting sexual harassment which cause women to hesitate before reporting. Indeed, even when they do, many end up in worse jobs or positions because of the culture of punishing the victim for coming forward, while a reluctance to fire or punish the offender is feared to lead to a lawsuit. While the notion that the harasser is the only player with legal authority has sexist undertones, the internal company legal system punishes the victim with an even stricter standard of proof than actual courts require. With 40% of women reporting to have experienced workplace harassment, it is clear that too many experiences are going unpunished and under the radar.

Aside from an obvious need for a cultural shift in the workplace and outside of it, there are practices that companies and coworkers can implement which mitigate the problem immediately. Some of these include evidence-based workplace training, an external reporting office, and information campaigns. By evidence-based training, we of course mean training programs that have been proven to work. The most successful have been programs directly for those in management positions and programs focusing on bystander intervention. This way, those in management positions know clearly what is tolerable, what is considered no-tolerance, a most importantly, how to center the victim when an allegation is raised. Further, if coworkers are taught to be more active in supporting those experiencing sexual harassment, it adds a system that encourages open conversations where the onus isn’t solely on the victim to come forward. With this system, it is also easier to foster a culture that encourages respect and consequences for harassment that is mutually understood beyond management. Another tactic many companies have implemented since the MeToo Movement has been enlisting an external office that is equipped to deal with sexual harassment situations, such as an Ombuds office. There are many advantages to this tactic. Firstly, it being an independent entity from the company ensures neutrality from the political workings of the office, so even if a senior level employee is the perpetrator, they won’t get a get-out-of-jail-free card from HR. As it stands, most companies without an Ombuds office conduct a legal hearing to address sexual harassment cases; in this rigorous process, only one in one hundred complaints make it through the process. Fortunately, the use of an external office doesn’t require a legal hearing and maintains confidentiality if the victim decides not to move forward with formally pursuing the allegation. However, even if they do not pursue any punishment system, it is up to the victim, and the Ombuds office stores the complaints to better identify patterns in the workplace. While this may be the best way for victims to come forward confidentially with their experiences, information campaigns are another way to help coworkers and management identify harassment when it is taking place. Although harassment may sound self-explanatory, many forms of harassment tend to be overlooked as cultural norms or harmless, when in fact it takes a toll on the dynamic and mental health of the victim. Things such as inappropriately reaching out to someone at late hours of the night, asking them sexual questions, or reaching out to them while intoxicated are insidious examples of harassment that people, even the victim, often overlook. The goal with these information campaigns is to set the standard and range of what sexual harassment may look like, so that it lessens the chance of occurring and eliminates a harassers plead of ignorance. While no list can be all-encompassing, having the conversation through information campaigns may aid in fostering an environment appropriate for all employees.

Indeed, harassment in the workplace has been the bitter truth of professional women since they entered the workforce. In and out of the workplace, efforts like the MeToo Movement and Women’s March have unmasked the experiences they face and showed the urgency at which this culture must change. With women’s stories such as Susan Fowler’s in corporate America tipping the pot of what everyday women must endure in their offices, more companies have made efforts to remedy this. Yet, every week we still see new women coming out about harassment they faced. With some short term solutions such as proven training programs and external offices that deal with harassment, the duty is on the company to implement these practices. In the mean time, friends and coworkers can stand in solidarity with women who voice their experiences and demand a better workplace environment for all employees. Right now, company interests may hold the cards, but there is more power in numbers if we stand tall and together.