Breaking the Silence
Experts debate whether the current public discussion about sexual harassment will lead to cultural shifts in which all individuals can safely raise claims about abusive treatment at work.
Boldface names have grabbed most of the attention. In the weeks since the story broke of Harvey Weinstein's decades-long pattern of sexual harassment, Charlie Rose, John Lasseter, U.S. Senator Al Franken, U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, former President George H.W. Bush and a long list of others have been accused of inappropriate behavior.
Revelations about how women have been treated -- a spectrum of transgressions ranging from insensitive behavior to alleged sexual contact with minors -- have unleashed what could become a reckoning in all sectors. Movie studios, media companies and the halls of government are, after all, workplaces, and Weinstein has unexpectedly opened up a deluge, despite -- or perhaps because of -- having a sitting U.S. president who has been accused of, and has even bragged about, similar behavior.
But the #MeToo movement notwithstanding, will anything really change? Is this public discussion leading to cultural or structural shifts in which individuals can finally raise claims about treatment in the office or on the factory floor while still feeling safe?
Don't bet on it, says Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of the School's Center for Human Resources. "I think the big challenge is that we have in recent years moved power away from bureaucracies and rules in companies and toward individual leaders. So we have many institutions where the leaders are all-powerful," he notes. "The fact that boards of directors in many companies are still chaired by the CEO is one manifestation of putting a leader above monitoring by the organization. How can we make it safe to challenge people in organizations who are so powerful? I don't see an easy way to do that. I don't see many company leaders being OK with the ability of individual employees to challenge their behavior or to turn over assessments of their behavior to an independent third party. It is still very dangerous for employees to challenge leaders in most organizations on anything as consequential as a harassment charge."
Many firms have gutted their HR departments and rely on supervisors to field complaints, points out Janice R. Bellace, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. "However, in many cases, the supervisor has been the problem," she says. "Sexual harassment is often a manifestation of power. The supervisor has power over the employee and can effectively demand that the employee tolerate sexual advances -- or worse -- or tolerate a hostile working environment. To whom should the employee complain when the supervisor is the problem and there is no HR office?"
Absent HR or an ombudsman, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, she asks: Who will guard against the guardians?
The Power of Self-delusion
One striking aspect of responses from the recent crop of men accused of sexual misconduct is the visible process of them grappling with what they did as wrong, says Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, vice dean of the school's Social Impact Initiative. "We are hearing those statements over and over again -- 'I am reckoning with what I did' -- and our first instinct may be to regard such statements as disingenuous. But, I suspect there's a significant element of truth here. At least some of these men are coming to grips with how harmful their behavior has been. As human beings, we are very prone to rationalization, self-justification, and self-delusion -- perhaps especially when we know, at some level, that we're in the wrong. So, an important question is how do you interrupt that self-delusion and correct that behavior at the very start of the slippery slope -- not decades after the fact?"
In order to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, "you need a culture that makes it clear that sexual harassment won't be tolerated," she says, "and at the same time, you need a culture that makes it psychologically safe for employees to express concerns, complaints and suggestions.
"Everything we know about organizational culture says the message has to come from the top and it has to be believable," she continues. "Responding after the fact, after your company has ignored it -- there are going to be real questions about where you were years ago when the complaints first emerged. So a clear response from the top that is perceived to be genuine, about how you want to lead and what you expect in a workplace, those statements are important -- that this is not part of the culture, this is not part of our way of doing business, and the sense of what's wrong here."
According to Klein, while it's obviously necessary to have a sexual harassment policy, it is not always easy to be clear about what constitutes sexual harassment. "There are gray areas where people are uncertain if a given behavior crosses the line," she says. "So it's important that people can and do feel safe enough and supported enough to speak up when they feel uncomfortable with someone's behavior. We can all agree that repeated, unwanted sexual touching is harassment. But if someone pats you on the upper back when he or she says hello or gives you a compliment, is that harassment? If the recipient -- the one whose back is getting patted -- feels uncomfortable, I would hope he or she could bring that up to someone at work to explore and resolve the situation."
A common characteristic of sexual harassment, she says, is that it tends to escalate. "When a man sexually harasses a woman, his behavior may become more egregious and aggressive over time. For example, several of the women who reported that Charlie Rose harassed them said that he began by putting his hand on their legs. This seemed to at least some of these women to be a test of how they would respond. If you have a workplace culture in which people are comfortable speaking up, where they can say, 'Hey, this makes me feel uncomfortable,' you may be able to prevent some of these behaviors."
The Power Dynamic
What can companies do to make sure victims feel safe coming forward and that they aren't further hurt by the subsequent fallout? "This is difficult, especially in small companies," says Bellace. "Companies need to make statements -- and follow up with actions -- that say that anyone who feels they are being harassed or disrespected at work should speak to HR and that the company will endeavor to keep the matter as confidential as possible. But the company cannot promise confidentiality. After all, it must investigate the complaint, and in a small work group it will be obvious who is complaining about whom."
Policies on sexual harassment should be understood to cover bullying, whether it is sexual or not. "Many people would not use the term 'sexual harassment' to cover what is legally known as a hostile working environment," Bellace says. "All they know is that lewd or derogatory comments or photos humiliate or embarrass them."
The overwhelming majority of sexual harassment in the workplace takes the form of transgressions by men against women -- but not all. One study that analyzed sexual harassment complaints filed with equal opportunity commissions in Australia over a six-month period found that 78 percent were female complaints against males. But women were accused of sexually harassing other women nearly 6 percent of the time, women harassing men in 5 percent of cases, and men accusing other men in 11 percent of cases.
The study points to the fact that power is often at the root of sexually harassing behavior. "The majority of complaints in all four groups were lodged against alleged harassers employed in a more senior position," wrote Paula McDonald, professor of work and organization at Queensland University of Technology, with Sara Charlesworth in "Workplace Sexual Harassment at the Margins" published in Work, Employment and Society. "This was particularly noticeable in female to female complaints, where nine in 10 complaints were made by subordinates against supervisors. Consistent with existing research, in many of these complaints women performed as 'honorary men,' adopting sexualized banter to maintain authority and 'fit in' with the dominant male gender culture."
One bright note in changing attitudes about gender roles in the U.S. workplace has recently emerged. Breaking a decades-long preference for male bosses, Americans are now indicating that they don't feel partial to a man or a woman. Since the early 1980s, the majority of both male and female respondents to a Gallup poll have said they would rather have a male boss. But in an early November phone poll with a random sample of 1,028 U.S. adults age 18 and older, 55 percent said they had no preference, and those who did were evenly split among men and women. (The poll has not yet started to account for bosses or workers who don't identify as either traditional gender.)
"Since the early 1980s, the preferences among both men and women for a male boss have each fallen by 50 percent," said Gallup. "The abrupt shift since 2014 in the percentage of Americans preferring a male boss suggests that the public may be reacting to the seemingly endless stream of sexual harassment allegations against men in workplaces across many industries, from Hollywood to Capitol Hill."
Tip of the Iceberg
Hollywood and Capitol Hill are but a visible proxy for what has long gone on in many other workplaces. In fact, the visibility of recent accusations may belie the fact that among various major sectors, media and entertainment do not have the highest incidence of reported sexual harassment -- by a wide margin. Hospitality and food service accounts for 14 percent of complaints, retail comes in at 13 percent, manufacturing at 12 percent, healthcare at 11 percent, administrative and support services 7 percent, professional, scientific and technical at 6 percent, finance and insurance at 4 percent, and arts and entertainment at well below 2 percent, according to a Center for American Progress analysis of figures collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2005 and 2015.
Might employers start to weed out job applicants with a prior history of sexual harassment? Probably not, says Bellace. "This is very difficult in the U.S. in light of the fact that previous employers are extremely unlikely to say why a person left the firm," she says. "Of course they can check criminal records in some jurisdictions and only after the position has been offered, but that is very unlikely to uncover anything relating to sexual harassment."
The cost of sexual harassment to American businesses is difficult to calculate, though settlements can run into the millions or more. A California jury in 2012 awarded a physician assistant $168 million after a suit against Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento (though the award was later lowered, and then negotiated in a settlement). Awards or settlements in the millions or tens of millions are unusual, though not unheard of. The U.S. government has paid out about $17 million in the past two decades to compensate employees in the legislative branch of the federal government in settlements of various kinds, including those to victims of sexual harassment. And the cost to workers whose careers have been interrupted or hobbled by lodging complaints -- or by simply leaving a job -- goes uncalculated.
Despite the recent wave of consciousness raising, a heavy burden still falls upon any employee who faces harassment and wants to do something about it. Bellace's advice: "Employees should keep a record of everything that disturbs them. Write it down, keep it on your home laptop -- the date and time, and what happened. If there are offensive photos, use your smartphone and capture a picture or use the snipping tool to copy what you see on the screen. If need be, record a conversation. Often a [victim's] complaint sounds vague or generalized and her complaint is dismissed. But if she can say that on specific date he said x, and a week later he sent an email that says y, and three days later he left a voicemail where he said z, that shows a pattern. The specificity of the complaint will indicate the seriousness and credibility of the complainant."
Complaints, if possible, should either be made in writing or followed up in email, she says -- for instance, an email to an HR representative that says something along the lines of: "Although I found it difficult to bring myself to go to HR, I am glad that I spoke with you on Monday because I know it is the right thing to do. This behavior is demeaning and insulting and it must stop. I await hearing from you about the next steps you will take."
HR should not simply sit back and wait for complaints, she says. "Many, many people are fearful that if they contact HR their career will be harmed. Many people see HR as the people who defend the company against lawsuits, not as the people who monitor the workplace and seek to enforce rules and norms of appropriate behavior. HR should convey to supervisors the need to be alert to inappropriate behavior and to nip it in the bud. There are many cases where supervisors were aware of improper jokes, lewd comments and inappropriately sexual comments on social media, and supervisors did nothing. That's where HR can be proactive. HR needs to convey to supervisors that it is part of their job to make sure conduct at the workplace is appropriate."
Bellace says that many women just want the behavior to stop. "They will complain and [then] say, 'But I don't want anything to happen to him,' or 'I don't want anyone to know.' This is an impossible request to accommodate. HR must explain why."
Klein says that one hurdle is that men often have a different standard for what's acceptable behavior. "Researchers have found that women are more likely than men to report that sexual comments and sexual contact constitute harassment," Klein says.
But one study showed that when a perpetrator gains greater awareness of the effect on the victim, he might be less likely to engage in future harassing behavior. In that study, 119 male and female participants read either a neutral text or a description of a sexual harassment case written either from the female target's or from the male perpetrator's perspective. They were then asked to complete scales measuring their own levels of sexual harassment myth acceptance (SHMA), the use of bogus rationalizations to justify bad behavior. Male participants were asked to gauge their own likelihood to sexually harass (LSH). "The target's perspective led to lower SHMA and to lower LSH than did the neutral text, whereas no such effect was found for the perpetrator's perspective," found Charlotte Diehl, Tina Glaser and Gerd Bohner of Bielefeld University in "Face the Consequences: Learning About Victim's Suffering Reduces Sexual Harassment Myth Acceptance and Men's Likelihood to Sexually Harass."
Perhaps the current testimony by victims streaming through media will be similarly effective. Says Klein: "One of the videos I watched was of a woman who reported that Roy Moore harassed her when she was a teen. She cried throughout the video in describing what he did to her 40 years ago. It was very powerful to see how this memory still disturbs her. Perhaps seeing videos like this one will help people grasp how deeply disturbing and degrading is it to be sexually harassed. The scars don't go away. They can last for decades."
Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.