Workplace sexual harassment and the culture of silence

While sexual harassment in the workplace has always been an issue, recently, the floodgates have opened as more women—and some men—are emboldened to tell their stories. In some instances, these alleged events occurred years and even decades ago, and were repeated over a period of time.

Why didn’t the victims or witnesses speak up earlier? Why does it appear that those in positions of power, with knowledge of these acts, failed to intervene?

Workplace sexual harassment thrives in a culture of silence, but companies should understand the risks of fostering this type of environment.

Root causes of a culture of silence

While sexual harassment in the workplace has always been an issue, recently, the floodgates have opened as more women—and some men—are emboldened to tell their stories. In some instances, these alleged events occurred years and even decades ago, and were repeated over a period of time.

Why didn’t the victims or witnesses speak up earlier? Why does it appear that those in positions of power, with knowledge of these acts, failed to intervene?

Workplace sexual harassment thrives in a culture of silence, but companies should understand the risks of fostering this type of environment.

Root causes of a culture of silence

There are several factors that contribute to a workplace in which sexual harassment is an open secret. According to S. Chris Edmonds, founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group, and author of “The Culture Engine,” this is not a new phenomenon.

“Evidence of the culture of silence regarding sexual harassment and assault can be found as far back as Biblical times—and likely further,” Edmonds says. “A culture of silence is driven by power and control: someone in power wants the body of another, so the powerful person threatens him/her with loss of job, loss of respect, loss of career, and more.”

While Hollywood has dominated the headlines in the exposure of workplace harassment, Edmonds warns that this type of behaviour is pervasive in every industry, including small businesses, multi-national corporations and everything in between.

“The stories of unwanted sexual attention now gaining media attention don’t mean these are ‘new’ issues or ‘one bad guy’ issues,” he explains.

But how has this behaviour been met with such deafening silence for so long? Robert Green, CCO of Ripple Collective, believes culture acceptance is a contributing factor.

“There is an inherent bias in our view of ‘leadership’ that points towards an archetype of ‘hard-charging,’ ‘tough’ and ‘take no prisoners’—which has produced leaders who grab at whatever they want, whatever the consequences,” he says.

And, it would appear that there are no negative consequences to their actions.

“Their behaviour is rewarded with bigger bonuses, raises and promotions, and that’s why new leadership isn’t enough,” Green explains. He says we have to change the belief that only certain personality types have the business chemistry required to be leaders.

Why victims and bystanders remain silent

A person about to be assaulted in a public place or a bystander witnessing a pickpocket in action probably wouldn’t hesitate to speak up or do something. But workplace dynamics are different.

“Human nature, organizational dynamics, and legal standards all enter the mix here,” says Jamie Prenkert, professor of business law at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and associate vice provost for faculty and academic affairs at IU Bloomington. “Victims of harassment often go through a cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to remain silent or go public in some way.”

According to Prenkert, a former senior trial attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employees know that going public can disrupt their lives and result in retaliation.

“Victims are often in positions of low power and voice, especially in relation to the perpetrator, and organisations are sometimes structured in ways to discourage reporting,” he explains.

The legal workplace standard of what constitutes appropriate behavior can be murky, and Prenkert says an act that demonstrates bad judgment might not result in employer liability for workplace harassment.

“Though federal sexual harassment law builds in an incentive for employers to prevent and correct harassment, that standard has largely devolved into pro forma policy and training requirements, rather than requiring more proactive steps to address deeply-seated cultural issues that contribute to harassment,” he says.

In addition, Prenkert believes there are other ways that victims, bystanders and witnesses may try to rationalise their silence. For example, he says that people tend to avoid claiming victimhood, so they might claim that they “misunderstood” the perpetrator’s actions. Bystanders might decide that it’s not their place to report what occurred.

Four types of silence

Dr Rob Bogosian, founder and principal at RVB Associates, Inc., and co-author of “Breaking Corporate Silence: How High Influence Leaders Create Cultures of Voice,” says his research has revealed four types of workplace silence.

  • Defensive: this silence type is rooted in fear, and silence is used as a response to the perception of egregious leadership practices. Employees use silence as a way to stay safe in an environment that they experience as a threat.
  • Offensive: this silence type is rooted in the pursuit of justice. Offensive silence has a retaliatory motivation. When an employee perceives a leadership or company action as unfair or unjust, they can determine that silence is a way to level the playing field.
  • Futility: this silence type is rooted in apathy and cynicism. Employees who have tried to participate by speaking up in the past and experienced no acknowledgement or change as a result determined that speaking up made no difference and that their voice has no merit.
  • Social: this silence type is motivated by protectionism, which is the desire to maintain close peer relationships. Employees may look the other way if they see a colleague doing something wrong, even if it represents risk to the company.

The risks to companies

Workplace sexual harassment is not limited to the offender and the accuser. Companies can also be affected by these accusations. According to Stephanie Redlener, managing director of talent strategy for innovation consultancy at DDG and founder of Lioness, there are two moments in which organizations are at the greatest risk.

“The first moment is prevention: when a company doesn’t take the necessary steps to prevent these actions from happening in the first place, employees will not feel safe in that company, and, in turn, it becomes a dangerous company.”

Redlener says the second moment is reaction.

“When these things happen, it is up to the organization to respond courageously instead of scapegoating, wrongly placing blame or covering up the incident.” If companies don’t respond properly, she says they risk watching years of good work go up in smoke because of one employee’s bad actions.

Some companies believe that confidentiality agreements may save them from the actions of their ill-behaving employees, but this is not necessarily true. Steven Adler is a lawyer at Mandelbaum Salsburg, and co-chair of the firm’s Labor and Employment Law Practice Group.

“Much has been written and discussed about the use by companies of confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses in settlement agreements to sweep harassment claims under the rug,” Adler says.

He believes that these actions are designed to protect a company’s reputation and can help to settle claims without going to trial.

“However, repeated instances of sexual harassment, or even one instance of egregious conduct, can be devastating to a company.” In addition to the financial implications of sexual harassment lawsuits, Adler warns that these organizations may have difficulty hiring new employees, and experience low morale and high turnover rates. They can also lose the loyalty of their customers.

Prenkert agrees, and while he believes that federal and state standards of legal responsibility are not as effective as they need to be, companies can still be held responsible by other means.

“As we’ve recently seen, when the perpetrators have a public profile and the victims have clout to claim a public platform or they are numerous enough to command attention, then the public relations risks to the organizations that have ignored or empowered the perpetrators can be significant.”

However, he admits that not all victims fit into one of these categories. “For example, the isolated, young teenager who is being harassed by her supervisor at a fast food restaurant in the suburbs, or the administrative assistant who is subject to a barrage of inappropriate behavior by the middle manager at an insurance company.”

How companies can protect the workplace and their employees

The best way for companies to protect themselves and their workers is by changing the culture. Edmonds explains, “If culture is left to chance, those who covet power and control will wield their influence and the culture of silence will take hold.” Instead, he says that companies have to be proactive and intentional in creating a culture that treats employees with respect and dignity.

That includes expressing in words and demonstrating by actions that sexual harassment is forbidden.

“Make sure everyone understands that the company has a ‘one and done’ approach to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, whether the harasser is a lower-level employee or the largest rainmaker at the company,” Adler says. He stresses that this message must come from the top of the organization.

Michelle Lee Flores, labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor, provides 5 practical steps that businesses can take to protect their employees and workplace:

  1. Review your Harassment Prevention Policy and confirm that it accurately identifies the current individuals to contact and ways in which employees can report claims of inappropriate conduct in the workplace. Do you have an alternative “anonymous” phone number for reporting?
  2. Consider immediately scheduling professional workplace training on sexual harassment prevention, abusive conduct prevention and maintaining a respectful workplace.
  3. Consider updating definitions of inappropriate conduct to include more modern examples of potentially harassing behavior and/or gender insensitivity, for example, the use of emoji in the workplace that could lead to ambiguity of meaning (such as a winking smiley face) or typing in ALL CAPS (“yelling”).
  4. Prepare for the (very real) possibility that an employee will report to HR, or in some public forum, alleged harassment by a co-worker or high-placed executive. Consider the potential ways you will be made aware of the information and the recommended short- and long-term responses. Consider having a go-to employment counselor or advisor to assist in plans of action.
  5. If you are considering the creation of an alternative internal mechanism for employees to report directly to a board of directors, or an advisory council to address such claims, seriously consider including at least one practicing attorney in employment law.


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