Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What Executives Need to Know

Our society is going through a paradigm shift surrounding proper conduct in the workplace. With movements like #metoo and Time’s Up, claiming ignorance to the goings on in one’s office is not an excuse and companies need to take steps to protect their people and their business.

From a purely practical point, ensuring that you have strict policies and education as to what constitutes sexual harassment in place helps prevent lost productivity, increased absenteeism, increased healthcare costs, and scandal. From a human standpoint, it is essential to protect your people and stop something that you know is wrong.

The Stats and Facts

Sexual harassment is defined as the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks. It is estimated that more than half of American women (54%) have experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. Furthermore, in almost all cases (95%) the harasser went unpunished.

With 33 million women having been sexually harassed in the workplace, now is the time to take action in your business.

It’s important to communicate to your people what sort of behavior constitutes sexual harassment. That doesn’t mean that you should send out an email blast and ask people to read a long policy guide, sign off on it, and return it to HR. Frankly, that’s a cop-out used to cover your business rather than protecting your employees.

Have a town hall meeting. Have training sessions. Use coaching to better communication between your staff and help them communicate in an effective, appropriate manner. The cost of these exercises is much less than the cost of having a sexual harassment case impacting not only your business, but the health and safety of one of your people.


What is Sexual Harassment?

Still today, people don’t fully grasp what sexual harassment is. They understand that touching someone is entirely inappropriate, but are unclear on what things they say and do also fit the spectrum. Sexual harassment consists of act like:

  • Making sex-related comments about one’s appearance or actions.

  • Asking or implying a request for sex in return for a favor.

  • Asking someone out repeatedly, despite them saying no.

  • Calling people sex-specific insulting names.

  • Discussing your sex life in appropriate settings -- the workplace in general.

  • Sharing sexual jokes, cartoons, videos, etc.

  • If it has to do with sex, leave it at home.


For example, telling one’s coworkers that a female executive only got her role by “sleeping her way to the top” is sexual harassment.

Whistling at a woman wearing a revealing outfit as she walks by the water cooler is sexual harassment.

Telling a coworker they remind you of your favorite adult film star is also sexual harassment.

The common argument when caught portraying these behaviors is that people are offended too easily or it was meant as a compliment. However, what is important is how it made the target feel. If this behavior makes someone feel uncomfortable in the workplace, it needs to be addressed immediately. It is important to reiterate to your people that the best way to prevent sexual harassment is to not sexually harass anybody.


Other Forms of Harassment

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that sexual harassment is the only thing you need to worry about in the workplace. Harassment that is not sexual in nature is still harassment. These scenarios include:

  • Making derogatory comments about one’s race, religion, appearance, or lifestyle.

  • Sharing inappropriate jokes, images, emails, etc.

  • Making offensive gestures.

  • Saying or implying negative things about one’s age, physical, or mental disabilities.

While putting an action plan in place to prevent sexual harassment, it would be prudent to evaluate your current policies in this area as well.


Where to Start

There is a delicate balance between camaraderie-- making jokes, telling stories-- and professionalism. However, it can be hard to define those lines, particularly if things have been done the same way for a long time. Contrary to popular belief, you can maintain the aspects of your interactions that make work enjoyable without crossing boundaries. In situations like these, it is best to lead by example and start at the top of the organization.

In many cases, the people at the top of the organization will have the most challenges in changing their behavior. Many successful businesses have a work-hard-play-hard mentality that is effective in improving morale and the bottom line, but can add a gray area that can be confusing to navigate.

Executive coaching and training sessions can teach your leaders how their words and actions are perceived, what sort of things they should say instead, and the repercussions of continuing along the path they are currently on. This is crucial as we start to see more women in executive roles, creating additional communication barriers.

More often than not, these training sessions will be enough to change how your leaders conduct themselves in the workplace. Or perhaps, your leaders are already effective communicators, and this session will just be a refresher.

Once you have proper conduct ingrained in your executive and board members, it is time to move down the chain. Lead by example and host larger training sessions and coaching opportunities for all employees.


Perceived Challenges

One of the major challenges organizations face is reporting obligations. It is essential to have a policy for managers to follow should one of their employees report sexual harassment to them. Furthermore, it is important to have your employees know that there are multiple people they can report to, in case their direct superior is causing the problem.

You will need to ensure that should a case arise, you are handling it the same way whether the offender is a custodian or C-Suite executive. Now is not the time for nepotism nor weighing the pros and cons of covering the incident up (FYI, it all ends up being cons in the end).

Your ultimate challenge is creating a culture where both men and women want to work. Coaching and training your people to create effective communication and a positive, collaborative environment will reduce turnover, boost morale, and improve the longevity of your company. Educating people so that they understand what they are and are not allowed to say goes a long way in workplace communication efforts.

It is equally important to assess how your employees’ values align with your company and how they contribute to your organizational culture. If you have a “work hard, play hard” mentality, you need to ensure that this mindset is conveyed to new hires and that their style of work aligns with your core culture. If your executive team portrays itself as a “boys club” it is essential to show that there is room at the top for women as well.

It’s time to build a culture that proves that it can be enjoyable--and safe-- for everybody, through town halls, coaching, and a well-written, well-enforced policy.

Does your business need help training your people to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace? We can help. Contact us to discuss your organization’s educational needs.


Meredith Wailes is the President of Bloom Leadership, a cutting-edge platform for business growth with a focus on Whole Person Development. Meredith works with both men and women to break communication barriers and coach her clients to success, both at an executive and ground-floor level.  For more information visit Meredith on LinkedIn and Twitter.