Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Requires Institutional Courage

Ross Brooks
Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Requires Institutional Courage

The #metoo movement may have started in Hollywood following the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but it quickly spread around the world. As more and more people shared their stories, it became clear that sexual harassment is an issue across genders in every industry.

A recent report, “What #MeToo Means for Corporate America,” conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) found that, across eight white-collar industry categories, 34% of women and 13% of men have been victims of sexual harassment at work.

What’s even more striking is how many incidents of sexual harassment go unreported. A 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report found that 6 to 13% of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint, which means on average, anywhere from 87 to 94% of individuals choose not the report the issue.

Employees often fear some form of social or professional retaliation. That could mean being met with disbelief, a lack of action or damage to their professional reputation. It’s here that companies need to take a stand and show that they’re on the side of employees.

The betrayal of a female engineer at Uber

Institutional betrayal, as defined by Jennifer Freyd, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, refers to the wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution such as a business or university on people that are dependent on that same institution.

A prime example of institutional betrayal is the case of Susan Fowler, a former Site Reliability Engineer at Uber, who reported her manager for sexual harassment in 2015. She was told by HR and Senior Management that nothing would happen because her manager was a “high performer” within the organisation. It was only after going public that Uber launched an investigation, which uncovered multiple instances of executive harassment and misconduct.

Uber failed in its duty to female employees, but there are companies who have used the #metoo movement as an opportunity to re-assess their approach to harassment in the workplace. In the process they have embodied what Freyd refers to as institutional courage.

What is institutional courage?

Institutional Courage is an approach to tackling institutional betrayal that relies on accountability and transparency. It focuses on the “methodical collection of data”, including anonymous surveys, and the distribution and study of that data to develop new solutions.

One of the companies that embraced institutional courage in the wake of the #metoo movement was Microsoft. They were one of the first companies to endorse legislation that would allow employees facing sexual harassment to make their case in a public court – which was previously blocked by private arbitration clauses found in many employment contracts.

According to the Economic Policy Institute’s survey of non-union private-sector employers, over 50% of Americans have unknowingly agreed to take claims of discrimination and sexual harassment to private arbitration as part of their employment contract.

Institutional courage isn’t only about policies and employment contracts, it can also be about challenging bias in the workplace. Following the #metoo campaign, “the number of male managers who were uncomfortable mentoring women more than tripled from 5% to 16%.”

Mentor relationships are important part of diversity and inclusion, which is why Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit Lean In launched a campaign to encourage senior leaders around the world to mentor more women. #MentorHer now has the support of more than 38 business leaders, including Disney’s Bob Iger and General Motors’ Mary Barra.

Despite their chequered past, Uber has also taken steps to be more courageous. Since replacing their former CEO and introducing new cultural norms, the company has scrapped mandatory arbitration. They also made a public commitment to publish a report that will include data on sexual assaults and other incidents that occur on the Uber platform.

How companies can be more courageous

The #metoo movement has created a unique opportunity for organisations to take a stand on sexual harassment in the workplace. There are various ways that companies can develop institutional courage, including better communication and more stringent internal policies.

Create a clear policy and communicate it to the business

Transparency is an essential component of institutional courage. Facebook made their harassment policy public last year, which is a great template for smaller companies, and a way for larger organisations to start discussions about their own policies.

The best policies are created based on the feedback of actual employees. They can highlight where existing policies need to be improved, and point to examples that work well in other organisations. Once a policy is in place, it’s equally important to make sure that employees know it exists. That includes making it available for everyone to access.

Explain how incidents will be handled before they happen

Even with a clear policy in place that everyone is aware of, it can still be intimidating to start a conversation about harassment. Sharing the process for submitting a complaint with the whole company is a good start, but a better solution is to hold a dedicated meeting in order to explain the policy and how it works, while also answering questions from employees.

Encourage whistleblowing and make it easy to start a conversation

When institutional betrayal is present, employees are punished for speaking out. Offer people different ways to come forward with complaints and concerns. Managers need to make themselves available, but other options include reporting the incident to HR, submitting anonymous feedback or calling an anonymous whistleblowing hotline.

Be transparent about data and communicate with other companies

Uber’s current CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has said that sexual predators often look for a dark corner. In order for companies to understand how they can improve policies and develop institutional courage, it’s important to share information with the wider community.

That could mean publishing aggregated figures about the number of complaints that have been received, or compiling the results with other companies to gain a better understanding of the problem in your industry. It’s at this point that organisations can pool their resources to identify bigger problems and develop solutions that will impact the next generation.

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