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HR to Legal: Leaders Make a Difference when Sexual Harassment Policies Are Priority

It’s more than just a phenomenon with a hashtag. In the #metoo era, business leaders have been presented with an opportunity to do better. When sexual harassment becomes part of a corporate culture, there is more at stake than just reputation. Sadly, when it permeates the climate of a business, the results are lower productivity, employee attrition, and an attitude of leniency toward sexual harassment throughout the organization. Generally, this leniency protects individuals who engage in misconduct while penalizing those individuals who speak up.

But several studies and surveys published within the last year point to an untapped, yet vital, talent among leaders that can influence, guide and develop a healthier and safer work environment for employees. This one critical aspect of leadership is communicating a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment. While communicating priorities in the right tone is a much-needed first step, additional follow-up with transparent policies and accountability through investigative processes can eradicate it entirely.

Many Surveys/Studies Reveal Strong Leadership May Be a Sexual Harassment Deterrent

Overall, 59 percent of women and 27 percent of men state that they have received unwanted sexual advances, or physical or verbal sexual harassment at work according to a recent Pew Research survey. And it’s not just harassment at the office, universities, and the military have also been under scrutiny as many more people publicly speak about their experiences. With so much at stake, Penn State offers a different look at leadership and its effect on sexual misconduct in the military with their study. This unique study suggests that the military’s success in reduced sexual misconduct is predicated on efforts to merge its sexual misconduct policies with leader development and accountability across all organizational levels. The results showed a fuller leadership model, influential leadership behavior and a healthier, more responsive and positive environment. Its revealing review indicates that leadership advocating against sexual harassment is the greatest deterrent and reduction to sexual harassment

Perhaps the most telling study comes from the Harvard Business Review, which found that leaders do mold employees’ attitudes at every level. In their experiment with 618 participants, HBR read a brief statement from a fictional company, Soloda, revealing the results of a sexual harassment survey taken by its employees. The statement included a quote from their fictitious CEO indicating the severity of the issue, “The results of the survey are alarming.” Other participants received the same statement and a different quote which downplayed the results, “We are skeptical that the survey represents an accurate rate of sexual harassment at Soloda.”

What Leaders Should be Saying

Amazingly, a slight difference in the tone and selected dialog from the fictitious CEOs made a huge impact to the respondents of the HBR online study. Those who received and read the ‘skeptical statement’ perceived sexual harassment issues were not an important issue at the company, while those respondents who received the message about the CEO taking sexual harassment seriously rated sexual harassment issues as a primary problem for the company. This benchmark held true among all respondents regardless of political affiliation or gender.

As mentioned previously, sexual harassment issues can damage a company’s reputation quickly. Certainly, the type of message, level of sincerity and message priority all make a difference in the perception of an organization from a public standpoint. It can either raise awareness or escalate concern. However, conveying a careless, even detached attitude through a corporate message diminishes the importance of the prevention of sexual harassment and that can be just as disastrous as a neutral stance. Fostering a climate of neutrality is exactly what ended the careers of both Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein. EEOC Sees Record Number Workplace Harassment Lawsuits in 2018In the long run; attaching little importance to the issue of workplace sexual harassment can be lethal to any business. When leaders take a neutral stance or minimize the issue, it can be costly. Recently the EEOC announced that they filed 66 workplace harassment lawsuits, 41 of which alleged sexual harassment. It may not sound like record numbers, but consider that the EEOC recovered $70 million for those victims, nearly doubling the $47 million received for victims in FY 2017. In other words, the EEOC averaged $ 1,060,606.06 per lawsuit.

If business leaders do not take workplace harassment seriously and have no policies, reporting mechanisms, or investigative processes in place, victims are left with little choice but to turn to the EEOC or the media. Beyond the high cost of litigation are the profound consequences of the bad publicity and scandal. Business leaders can expect high employee turnover, productivity losses, low public perception of the company brand, boycotts, walkouts, loss of customers and the hardship of retaining current employees while trying to attract top talent.

What both the HBR and the Penn State military studies reveal are that when leaders identify sexual harassment prevention as a priority so will others. Taking the appropriate stance followed by the right course of action pushes people in the right direction and can shape their behavior for a safer work environment.

Based in Austin, Texas, the Lynch Law Firm uses AttorneyNatalie Lynch[1]and HR Specialist Susan Word, and Industrial Psychologist Lindsey Leeto bring appropriate, affordable, and accurately scaled solutions to its clients. Reach out to the firm todayto begin working towards your better solution.



Pew Research Center

Harvard Business Review

Study: When Leaders Take Sexual Harassment Seriously, So Do Employees by Chloe Hart, Alison Dahl Crossley, and Shelley Correll

Penn State Military Study on the impact of leadership on sexual harassment

[1]Previously of Denver, Colorado and licensed in Colorado and Texas.