Avoid, prepare for sexual harassment in the workplace

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Sexual harassment and sexual assault have been kept quiet in the workplace for decades, but recent allegations of assault and harassment against movie producer Harvey Weinstein have re-sparked a movement in the U.S. and throughout the world.

The reports led to a social media campaign called #MeToo, a hashtag used to illustrate those women who have been harassed or assaulted.

The recent internet campaign was started on Twitter by actress Alyssa Milano, who encouraged men and women to use #MeToo to weigh in on their own experiences with harrassment and assault. The hashtag started  in 2006 with activist Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” movement.

Since the Weinstein allegations, more have come forward against other powerful figures such as actor Kevin Spacey and Amazon Studios director Roy Price. But sexual harassment and assault are hardly limited to the entertainment industry, according to Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“This is a pervasive problem in American culture,” Houser said. “All sectors are impacted by this and it’s because it’s a cultural problem. It’s not relegated to one particular part of our economic sector or another.”

Through the social media campaign, many more people came forward with their personal stories; it provided a renewed awareness and platform for reporting sexual harassment and assault.

“When you’re on your own social media feed and you see hundreds of other people saying that they’ve experienced what you’ve experienced, you no longer feel alone. You may not feel shame about what’s been done to you so it can really help break the silence and reinforce to people that what happened was not their fault,” Houser said.

From 2014 to 2016, there were more than 6,000 allegations annually of workplace sexual harassment nationwide, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This number has decreased since 2013, which saw more than 7,000 charges of alleged sexual harassment.

But these statistics don’t match the number of actual incidents, according to Houser.

“What we know is that most people do not go to human resources and oftentimes it’s because they fear their needs won’t be met, that the department may be acting on behalf of the company,” Houser said. “Victims need to [be able to] trust that the policies of their employer are going to be enforced.”

While the EEOC found that one in four women nationwide is harassed at work, many women don’t report those incidents.

“It’s mid- to lower-level supervisors and managers who are not responding in the moment or when they’re hearing rumors among their staff,” Houser said. “This is the reality of the workplace. We don’t work in isolated cubicles. You hear conversation, you hear the jokes, you know what people are talking about.”

Without a healthy work environment, businesses could lose money in the long run.

A few financial costs could be poor work performance, unmotivated employees, hiring and training new employees and possible lawsuits, said Houser.

“If you think about the fact that you have people coming to work and not performing, whose attendance may be real hit-and-miss because they don’t like being in the workplace — you may have exacerbated health conditions because of what stress in the workplace can do,” she said. “If your workplace is a hostile environment you’re going to be dealing with those things more frequently.”

Be proactive

Brie Franklin, executive director for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she foresees an increase in sexual harassment reports since the #MeToo campaign started.

“As we have seen in other cases when there is an increase in media attention to an issue, I would not be surprised if there is an increase in reporting of sexual harassment in the workplace as people learn that what they have experienced is not OK and feel more empowered to come forward,” Franklin said in an email.

“Businesses have a legal obligation to address sexual harassment and create a safe environment for their employees.”

Denver attorney Curtis Graves of the Employers Council said he also expects the number of sexual harassment reports to increase soon.

“It hasn’t been that long but we believe it’s going to happen,” Graves said. “I don’t know that sexual harassment is happening any more or less, but I do think people are going to be more willing to come forward about it.

“If it were a month from now we might be able to give you solid data, but right now we’re just waiting for the deluge to come.”

But it is possible to prevent lawsuits and improve the overall work environment, Graves said.

“I would get out in front of it and consider doing some training now,” he said. “Be proactive instead of reactive. We always recommend companies do harassment training every two years so that incoming employees are constantly getting it.

“The thing about training is, it actually sets up legal defense. So it’s very important to do that, not only to educate people, but to take advantage of the law in favor of the employer. [Businesses] should do so without delay if they haven’t already.”

Businesses can also contact an attorney or the EEOC.

“Not having good legal representation in the near term can cost them in the long term,” Graves said.

It’s important for businesses to have a policy or handbook outlining federal and state laws, Graves said, and if a policy is in place, it’s the business’ responsibility to keep it up-to-date.

Graves said he often sees businesses fail to update policies on what’s allowed at work, adding that businesses also should list the contacts a victim can use to report harrassment.

“You [should] share a minimum of two, preferably three people to contact within a company,” he said, “because oftentimes the person they should report it to is the person who’s harassing them.”

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