How to create a harassment-free workplace culture

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What is workplace sexual harassment?

The Merriam-Webster definition of sexual harassment is “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate “. In practical terms, sexual harassment refers to any unwanted attention, physical or verbal, of a sexual nature. This can include persistent sexual comments, explicit communications (images and text), or unwanted physical advances. 

The two categorically defined types of sexual harassment within US Federal law fall under a hostile work environment and quid pro quo harassment

Make sure employees and management understand what sexual harassment is

To fight sexual harassment and enforce a harassment policy within your organization, everyone must be clear on what harassment actually looks like.  While the above definition seems clear, in practice there are often many gray areas, and defining clear company policy and culture around questionable behaviors goes a long way to stopping poor behavior from becoming something much more destructive.

>> Read more: How to deal with sexual harassment as a manager

The first step to eliminating gray areas and establishing clear lines is creating a clear sexual harassment policy. Without a published standard to point to, your organization will find it difficult to address questionable behavior and may even open itself up to legal troubles in the event a suit is brought against the organization. With a clear policy that defines expected behaviors, your organization will have the foundation needed to begin building a safe and transparent culture.

WiseDaily: Sexual Harassment Prevention Training
  • Bite-sized, mobile-friendly courses in more than 30 categories
  • State-compliant sexual harassment prevention training
  • Individual, company-wide, and customized memberships available
  • Members get exclusive perks and up to $4,500 in savings on dozens of expenses and experiences

Set an expectation for a harassment-free company culture

Along with establishing a clear policy, setting a high bar for behavior among leadership is the next key element in preventing harassment in your organization’s work environment. 

The tone set by managers and leadership will deeply impact what employees believe is acceptable within your company culture. Managers who demonstrate exemplary behavior in this area will encourage similar behavior in others and will set an expectation for those who are tempted to behave otherwise. 

Setting a high bar of behavior also sends a signal to those employees who already find themselves being harassed. If an employee, who is currently experiencing harassment by a peer, notes the standard set by leadership, they will be more confident they will find help when they come forward and expose the issue to leadership. 

Empower managers to stop harassment

Another key factor in addressing harassment within the workplace is simply empowering your management team to confront and call out harassment when it is observed. The ineffectiveness of lengthy, dehumanizing corporate harassment investigations has been written about extensively, and the takeaway from these experiences always settles back to a simple concept: it is better to directly and quickly root out harassment where it is observed, quickly, bluntly, and efficiently. 

An effective method to accomplish this sort of rapid response is to ensure your managers understand that they are empowered to directly address instances of clear harassment. This does not mean that due process will not have its place and managers need to be trained to pull in more formal processes when necessary. However, swiftly addressing budding harassment behavior in the moment is often enough to reorient employees who are straying from acceptable practices. With such a response, the issue will often die before it has been given a chance to bloom into a full-blown harassment crisis. 

Provide positive sexual harassment prevention training

Employees, and humans in general, do not respond well to negative reinforcement, especially when the messaging contains a baked-in undercurrent of accusation. Many harassment training programs start with a negative, comply-or-else attitude that puts immediately puts employees on the defensive. 

A more effective approach to harassment training is one that focuses on empowering employees to be influencers and owners of the company culture. This approach starts with the positive message of employees protecting one another and protecting the work environment in which they spend so much time.

This approach starts with the assumption that employees want to do right by one another, want to create a nurturing work environment, and want to be co-owners of that effort. When employees are engaged in this way, the depth of ownership is significant and the culture more quickly exposes those employees who are not on board with creating a healthy, respectful environment.

We recommend a harassment prevention tool, such as WiseDaily, that breaks down training into regular, small-scale lessons to help remind employees of what healthy workplace interactions look like, rather than a once-per-year marathon session on harassment.

Enlist your employees to fight sexual harassment

Creating a sense of cultural ownership around what is acceptable behavior at work also creates cultural champions among your employees. When you have a group of peers who are willing to fight for a safer workplace, are willing to speak up for one another, and are building a sense of trust amongst themselves, a great deal of the behavior regulation becomes self-regulation rather than top-down policing.

Measurements like the Edelman Trust Barometer have repeatedly shown that organizations and teams who are empowered together create a deeper sense of trust and cohesion than is can ever be possible from heavy-handed leadership. 

Take steps to create a positive work environment now 

Creating a harassment-free workplace is a long-term effort for your organization. Real change does not happen overnight but the foundational pieces can be implemented starting right away. By defining harassment for your organization, making sure everyone is on the same page policy-wise, and empowering both your managers and your employees, you will take significant steps toward stopping workplace harassment and creating an open, positive work environment.

WiseDaily: Sexual Harassment Prevention Training
  • Bite-sized, mobile-friendly courses in more than 30 categories
  • State-compliant sexual harassment prevention training
  • Individual, company-wide, and customized memberships available
  • Members get exclusive perks and up to $4,500 in savings on dozens of expenses and experiences

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