As sexual harassment continues to dominate news coverage and public debate, associations should consider their own office environments and how they work to prevent inappropriate behavior.
In recent weeks, allegations of sexual harassment in Hollywood have led to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences establishing a new code of conduct for its members. Meanwhile, a new poll released last week by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal showed that 48 percent of currently employed women in the United States say that they have personally experienced an unwelcome sexual advance or verbal or physical harassment at work.
“The situation in the work environment, as well as the culture in general, is one where women are treated as prey…and we have to change the culture,” said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, in an interview with Associations Now. “We’re seeing the culture change with women—as far as that they are finally speaking out—and because of that, they’re learning that what is happening to them is not normal. It’s not OK.”
Considering the prevalence of harassment that still exists in the workplace, it may be time for organizations to reconsider just how effective their related education and policies are in preventing this behavior.
Policies. It’s common for organizations and companies to have policies and training in place as a means to prevent harassment or other negative behavior among staff. But, Van Pelt said, “much of the training has pretty much just been set up as a way for an organization to cover themselves legally, but it truly has not been effective.”
To bolster preventative measures, organizations should very clearly define what harassment is and what types of behavior are inappropriate—including jokes, unwelcomed touching, and innuendo—in their employee handbooks.
Consequences. In addition to policies around what qualifies as harassment, organizations need to state what the consequences are for harassment. Then, in the case where an individual has acted inappropriately, the organization should respond with those meaningful consequences in a timely matter.
“It has to be something that happens immediately, that is very public, and is very clear,” said Van Pelt.
Reporting methods. Lastly, organizations should establish a straightforward process for employees to report workplace harassment to the human resources department. In addition to describing what behavior is inappropriate, the employee handbook should lay out when, how, and to whom it should be reported.
But it’s imperative to also encourage male and female witnesses, not just victims, to report harassment through the proper channels, which may require a shift in organizational cultures.
“Not only do we have to stop the sexual harassment of women, but we have to have men that witness it self-report it,” Van Pelt said. “And we have to have those lines established when they know that it’s going on that they have a place that they can go and say, ‘I’ve witnessed this, and I know that it’s wrong.’”