The Harassment-Free Workplace

553096bff12bc2ede7242b2bed3b0986-originaThe Role for Men and Companies

By Terry Howard. Sexual harassment’s recent emergence in the media presents us with pressing questions. What can organizations do to prevent and respond to sexual harassment? What do effective training programs and follow-up actions look like? What role do men play?
Below, contributing writer Terry Howard answers these questions and more.
Once again, sexual harassment is back in the headlines thanks in part to the high-profile exit of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News.
What tends to happen is that when someone like O’Reilly gets hit with a charge, sexual harassment moves back to the front burner. We saw the same thing immediately after the Clarence Thomas hearings decades ago.
So, what exactly is sexual harassment?
Simply defined, it is unwelcomed behavior of a sexual nature. A few examples: repeated, degrading, or offensive remarks, jokes, and gestures of a sexual nature. It is important to understand that sexual harassment is receiver-perceived.
Why do “intelligent” people harass?
Unfortunately, the answer to that age-old question isn't that simple. Its causes are complex, rooted in socialization, culture, societal gender expectations, and psychology. Many say that the root of sexual harassment is power, control, territoriality, and insecurity. When some people feel threatened or rejected, or have poor social skills, they harass. Sex is often a secondary motivation.
Are there cultural variables that may come into play when understanding and dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace?
Yes. When you add culture to the mix, things get murkier since some cultures may have defined expectations relative to treatment of women. But to be clear, if those cultural norms translate into discriminatory treatment in the workplace, non-discrimination laws and policies trump culture.
Is it safe to assume the majority of harassment targets are women and aggressors are men?
Sexual harassment happens to both women and men, although it happens more often to women. In 2016, 16% of sexual harassment charges received by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were filed by men. Although sexual harassment of men does occur, they are less likely to report the behavior, in part because of a societal stigma that men "should enjoy it!"
It's also important to know that targets and perpetrators of harassment run the full gamut—young, old, well-educated, married, etc.—and it occurs in every function, field, and culture. Harassment happens in our presence, behind our backs, during meetings, from customers, on business trips, in e-mail, and in other ways and places. It happens male to female, female to male, male to male, and female to female.
What do you say to someone who dismisses “innocent jokes” as light humor without any malicious intent?
As I mentioned, harassment is in the eyes of the beholder. If the target finds it offensive, then it is. Someone who does something that another finds offensive should immediately stop the behavior. Once may be a mistake, but two or more times is likely intentional.
Second, the "intent" is secondary to the "impact" of the behavior. Although the intent may be to “have a little fun,” the impact on the target can be long-lasting and very damaging. The damage can also extend to the reputation of the supervisor or manager who either knows or should have known of the offensive behavior and does nothing.
What works best in minimizing harassment in the workplace?
I believe in the “systems” approach, and training is an element of that system. What I’ve observed over the years is that when harassment strikes the organization, word quickly spreads and fear and turmoil can result. Relationships can be put on edge. So it is important to put together a communication strategy to heal the organization.
What role does training play in preventing and responding to harassment?
I first developed the workshop New Focus on Sexual Harassment years ago, and followed that up with Sustaining a Harassment-Free Workplace not long after. Well over 30,000 US supervisors, managers, and direct employees completed the training.
New Focus was built around gender. Sustaining was expanded to include other forms of harassment, including harassment based on age, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Although some argue that you “water down” the focus on women as targets of sexual harassment when you expand the discussion to include other forms of harassment, the danger of a narrow focus is that it may imply that some forms of harassment are more important than others.
We operate off the principle, “no blaming, no shaming,” and tie the training to leadership development and retaining talent. Although they are designed for different audiences, all share common core content including legal definitions, EEOC guidelines, policies, and specific roles for the organization, managers, and individual contributors in preventing and responding to harassment of any kind.
From our experience with short case studies, individual strategies work best, including tactics addressing what to do if the “harasser” is a customer or client or is from a different culture.
What’s the message for men?
I don’t think I can overemphasize the critical role men can play as allies and advocates in preventing and stomping out harassment in the organization. I say that because the reality is that men still hold the majority of positions of power, and constitute the majority of sexual harassment perpetrators. They are in the best position to take the lead, to intervene, and set the right expectations.
26ede85f5699baaf10c4196fd1f5693b-originaTerry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is a senior associate at Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Huffington Post and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at
Posted by Jared Cline on May 2, 2017 11:28 AM America/New_York

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One insight that often moves men from bystanders to intervenors is understanding that observers believe "Silence means consent".  In other words, women who see men letting other men get away with sexual harassment believe the men watching AGREE with the behavior.  When the watchers understand that, they are much more likely to step in, because it is their own reputation that is at stake.  Few men are willing to be seen as co-participants in sexual harassment.
  • Posted Tue 02 May 2017 02:03 PM EDT


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