How to Prevent Harassment and Promote Workplace Equity
Addressing sexual harassment when it occurs is often the primary means that many businesses deal with in the workplace. While that is all well and good, it doesn't necessarily do anything to stop the problem from happening. Isn't it better to try to keep something from occurring rather than just dealing with it every time it happens? Taking the time to improve conditions in the workplace in an effort to prevent sexual harassment and to generally make it a better environment can have a significant impact for everyone involved.

This article will look at two concepts--prevention measures against harassment and the promotion of workplace equity. Both can serve a common purpose and help improve the circumstances of the workplace to help combat harassment of all forms. Topics will include an explanation of equity, common reasoning for using preventative actions and possible methods for doing so.

What is Equity?

Equity is a word that often appears in the business world, usually regarding the assessment and management of assets and liabilities. However, another one of equity's definitions is relevant to the context of this course and is what applies here, which is the fair and just treatment of others. This roughly translates to establishing practices and attitudes that treat everyone equally and transparently without any favoritism or bias. When it comes to preventing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, this can help in setting the tone of what is and what isn't acceptable behavior between individuals.

There are benefits to workplace equity that can contribute to the environmental state desired in the prevention of harassment. Namely, equity has been known to aid in employee satisfaction, retention rates, productivity, performance, and talent recruitment. All of this can generate a positive atmosphere in the workplace and a positive relationship between employees. However, there are some disadvantages as well. Namely, equity does not focus on creating motivation for employees to advance thanks to the lack of hierarchy among staff members that it encourages. This can pose operational issues like decision making and authority that may reason that equity should be implemented in moderation and with care.

Encouraging Respect

Respect is always a positive thing and it unfortunately isn't as widespread of a practice or concept as it should be. In the workplace, respect among peers is a hallmark of professionalism. By definition, professionalism is the conduct and behavior of individuals in a professional environment that is appropriate for said environment. It's a basic component of the workplace determined by the profession or industry of the workplace, such as teaching, academics, or engineering. Professionalism can be broken down into further components, each with their own requirements and elements. These can include attitude, work attire including things like uniforms, language as in no swearing, slang, etc., work-life boundaries, accountability, meaning taking responsibility for your actions, and peer interaction. Whatever the details may be, respect is a necessary component that is vital to the tone that workplaces need to set to prevent the conditions that allow sexual harassment to run rampant. However, respect isn't the standard throughout the workplace and society. This is largely in part because some people can be rather nasty in how they interact with each other, whether it is a natural part of their disposition or the disrespect is a learned habit. That does not mean that there is nothing that can be done to encourage and foster respect in the workplace or wherever else it may be needed in your life. Respect has become a necessary component that allows for everything to continue running smoothly and without issue in both society and in the professional world. It's not a perfect concept but it certainly makes a difference.

In order for respect to have a successful impact on the workplace, it needs to be present. Encouraging respect often works best through action and behavior. Most will adhere to the tone of an environment once it has been established, so respect cannot be encouraged and fostered if it is not there to begin with. The easiest way that this can be done is through the practice of accountability or being responsible for one's actions. This is especially important for the members of management and it often shows others that you are willing to take charge of the outcome of your actions, regardless of if they are positive or negative. For many, accountability is an admirable trait that shows that a person can be trusted and is worthy of respect from others. Many experts suggest establishing a strong work ethic, transparency in decision making, and recognition of others as means of encouraging accountability and respect in the workplace. This can be done not just by members of management but by all staff and employees in the business.

Making Staff Care About Harassment, Sexual or Otherwise

The biggest issue in implementing any kind of preventative measures against sexual harassment isn't that those actions are difficult to do, but that many people don't want to actively do anything to help. Unfortunately, a lot of people just don't see sexual harassment as a big enough problem to care about it. When the topic of workplace harassment is brought up, it is inevitable that someone will question why they should pay any attention to it, especially if they are not someone who would typically be harassed in the first place. Having this reasoning occur in a particular workplace doesn't mean that sexual harassment is rare or doesn't happen there. More likely, it's just not as apparent or acknowledged. The seriousness of harassment in the workplace means that it should be something that you care about no matter who you are. Recent events and the escalation of harassment in the last few years means that the need for people to care about and pay attention to the issue is just as important now, if not more so.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Workplace Sexual Harassment in the #MeToo Era course?

From a business standpoint, issues caused by harassment in the workplace are numerous and can impact those outside of the situation. As mentioned in previous lessons, sexual harassment in the workplace can quickly get expensive. Litigation fees and payments can run $50,000-$300,000 per case under law without the additional costs of settlements, legal fines, etc. Businesses that are associated with rampant sexual harassment can have their reputations severely impacted because it suggests to the public that it's not a safe place to work for or with and that there may be other legal issues not yet known. Poor reputations, especially with certain issues, can lead boycotts of products and services from that company, leading to a financial loss in profit and sales.

Employees should also care about sexual harassment in the workplace because it has an impact that reaches far past just the direct roles of victim and harasser. Instances of prolonged or frequent harassment can impact the atmosphere of the working environment, which can impact the mental state of employees while they work. This makes productivity and performance difficult plus impedes their ability to work together well. The quality of their work can also decrease significantly if there is mental and/or emotional stress caused by things in the workplace. Their health can be impacted through the development of conditions like anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders that can produce mental, physical, and emotional health issues. People can leave and have left jobs when they don't feel safe in the workplace, which can produce high turnover rates and employee retention issues. Ultimately, all of these things can impact a person's career path both within the company they work for and in their profession. There's a lot to consider about what could happen thanks to the indirect impact of sexual harassment in the workplace.

It's easier to imagine the potential of indirect impacts from sexual harassment in the workplace when you consider the effects that can be produced when high-ranking members of the business are harassing their subordinates. Co-workers of victims who are being harassed by their supervisor or managers often begin to lose trust in said supervisor, as they may question anything from their professionalism to their mental state. Fear of becoming a victim themselves can keep them quiet regardless of if they are being threatened to do so by the harasser. The harasser themselves may feel like their actions are validated and accepted because no one is stopping them or saying anything, which can prompt them to continue and/or escalate their behavior. This can include increasing the number of victims and the severity or forms of harassment. Finally, the silence of a sexual harassment victim's peers against the harassment can be interpreted as condoning the harassment, which impacts the trust and respect among peers. This can produce further discord in the workplace and allow more issues to develop. 

Educational and Informational Measures

There are several methods that businesses use in order to try and prevent workplace sexual harassment. The go-to for years has been making education and informational resources available to employees, typically in the form of sexual harassment training sessions or programs. Unfortunately, most experts agree that this doesn't work as well as people may think due to the narrow focus and lack of change in how these seminars are taught. The methodology in sexual harassment training is stagnant and has long evoked a particular response from employees and employers, mostly along the lines of dread or boredom. Some people may even view sexual harassment educational efforts in the workplace as a kind of joke, but that may depend on the attitudes existing in the workplace toward sexual harassment. Some businesses resist or choose to not offer it, sometimes against their own policies, because they feel like it somehow impedes their legal liability and is a waste of time.

While all of this is cause for concern, it should not discourage you from implementing any plans for educational and informational measures regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. The recent events that have thrust sexual harassment firmly into the public spotlight has prompted business leaders, educators, and legal advisors to take a closer look at how employees are educated and informed about sexual harassment. This has included seeking out non-traditional training practices and policy reformation to ensure that procedures are followed. Businesses should revisit their existing sexual harassment policies regardless in order to address any loopholes or inefficiencies that might allow offenders to have a pass. However, seeking out different options for training and education for employees on sexual harassment might be an excellent idea for employers who are worried about any kind of resistance or passivity on the subject. Remember to make sure that any information regarding sexual harassment and the business' policies on it are easily accessible for all employees.

Addressing Obstacles

It's safe to say that there may be a few issues that need to be addressed before fully implementing any plans. Failure to address obstacles already present in the workplace could produce further problems later on with the potential for them to worsen in severity. If you don't at least acknowledge these obstacles and their impact, then it's unlikely you'll accomplish very much. Just because you don't acknowledge that something is there doesn't mean that it will eventually go away. It doesn't work like that. You must both identify and address obstacles that are present in the workplace in advance of any changes and plans. In the long run, this will be beneficial and will provide management or basically whoever is in charge of implementing any plans for equity and harassment prevention with incredibly valuable information about the existing workplace.

Existing obstacles to making any kind of changes to deal with sexual harassment are often problems that are contributing to harassment and impeding the workplace's normal functions. Some of these obstacles can include environmental hostility, poor leadership, and weak company policy enforcement. Issues from society that leech into the workplace like sexism and gender socialization can be ingrained into the attitudes of employees and employers and pose difficulties when trying to counteract those mentalities. There are also issues that can stem from the demographics of the workforce, namely, aspects like age gaps and cultural barriers that can impact how people already respond to and view sexual harassment. The ever-expanding and diversifying nature of society and the workforce means that there are a growing number of factors that can influence what will and will not work with regard to prevention, equity, and handling sexual harassment in the workplace. Most businesses will likely need to try a few things in order to setup a plan that works best for their employees and their workplace.