Managing Sexual Harassment Risk: What Causes Complaints?

The number of people coming forward publicly with sexual harassment complaints continues to increase. Since April 2017 over 130 high-ranking men and women have fallen from power after being called out for their inappropriate and unlawful behavior. This abuse of power can happen at organizations of all sizes in all industries and is one of many bases for complaints. By understanding what causes sexual harassment and staying vigilant, you will be better suited to manage sexual harassment risk. 

Top 5 Causes of Sexual Harassment Complaints

1. Power Differential. The top cause of sexual harassment complaints stems from the power dynamics at work. Many cases involve senior-level officers abusing their power to sexually harass and intimidate others. Victims are often coerced into sexual acts because they are offered professional favors or fear to lose their job if they refuse their superiors. Creating a culture of equality will help eliminate the fear of retaliation.

2. A Culture that Implies Acceptance. In a relaxed work environment, there’s often a wink-wink, nod-nodoffice culture that’s  accepting of an employee’s quirky yet inappropriate behavior. Although some people may be comfortable in that environment, saying things like “Oh that’s just how he is,” others may be offended and feel uncomfortable which leads to sexual harassment complaints. All employees need to be held accountable for following the established code of conduct.

3. Not Understanding Harassment. Some employees don’t fully comprehend what counts as sexual harassment at their office. They might not realize that greeting a colleague with a kiss on the cheek or complimenting their appearance is grounds for a sexual harassment complaint. On the other hand, complaints also stem from employees who think they’re being harassed but technically are not according to company policies. By clearly defining sexual harassment, organizations can avoid these sticky situations.

4. Poorly Managed Policies and Procedures. Employee handbooks contain legal jargon in order to remain compliant with the law, which can be hard for employees to fully understand. They also tend to be reviewed only once, during new hire orientation. When policies and procedures aren’t expressed clearly and spoken about frequently, the rules are more likely to be broken. Organizations need to have policies in place that explain proper behavior, have zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, and contain a written code of conduct. Continually reinforcing company policies and educating employees will prevent a hostile work environment.

5. Excessive Stress. When under a lot of stress, an employee is likely to express their emotions towards others. Verbal abuse, physical altercations, and other stress-releasing actions create harassment situations in the heat of the moment. By creating a stress-free work environment and teaching employees how to cope with stress, employees will be less likely to act out against their colleagues irrationally.

 
Sexual harassment can be an awkward topic to discuss in the workplace. Most offices only conduct sexual harassment training once a year and it tends to be dull and forgettable. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By creating a culture of accountability and awareness in your office through improved sexual harassment training, complaints will occur less frequently. Check out our previous article in this series for policy considerations and preventative actions that will help with managing sexual harassment risk.
 
As a reaction to the sexual harassment crisis in the US, social movements like the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns are pushing for changes to federal laws and regulations. Be on the lookout for more content in this series that will help you navigate through the changing employment practices legal environment. 
 

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