Drawing a Line: How to recognize and eliminate sexual harassment in your organization (yes, yours too)

Harvey Weinstein. Al Franken. Charlie Rose.

The last several weeks have been filled with a seemingly endless line of allegations against high-profile celebrities, politicians and businessmen, and as more victims come forward, even more appear. Sexual harassment is a phenomenon that just happens in other places and other industries—until it happens close to home, too.

“Suddenly, I [as a victim] don’t need to worry as much about the politics or my standing and relationship with my superiors; I can make this claim, because look at these other individuals who have come forward and made the claim and it’s been positively received. It’s empowering and it’s encouraging,” says Ryan Nelson, Utah president of Employers Council. “Seeing all this happening and the positive news reports and people coming out and condemning the behavior is extremely empowering and gives courage for an individual to report.”

This rising tide of revelation and accusation has many business leaders holding their breath. Will my organization be the next to be hit with a sexual harassment scandal?

As awareness grows on a subject that has been something of an open secret in many sectors of business, victims feel increasingly comfortable about speaking up. And as the ripples of newfound boldness and accusations expand, it’s more important than ever for employers and employees alike to know how to recognize sexual harassment and keep it from happening in their own workplaces.

Most advice aimed at business leaders is about mitigating legal exposure: how to prevent sexual harassment so you don’t get sued. How to pretend to take it seriously so you don’t get sued. How to create a policy so you’ll win if you get sued.

But this cultural moment offers an opportunity to go well beyond legal liability. How can you create a workplace culture that simply does not tolerate sexual harassment—because harassment is wrong, whether or not you’re legally responsible for it?

What it is

While sexual harassment certainly includes lewd comments or actions meant to provoke or make a person uncomfortable, it can also be a much more subtle, nuanced pattern of behavior.

“Understanding sexual harassment is the first step for the victims and those who are harassers. There are some harassers who don’t have a clue they’re engaging in sexual harassment behaviors,” says Kristina Diekmann, David Eccles professor of business ethics and professor of management. “The more egregious forms, people can agree on, but more subtle forms, I think there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty. It’s really important to increase awareness of what sexual harassment is, what the behaviors entail—that’s the first step for everyone.”

One misconception is that a comment or action has to be sexual in nature for it to constitute sexual harassment, says Nelson, and while those types of behaviors certainly qualify, the definition is much broader than just that.

“What we focus on from a legal standpoint with sexual harassment is the content,” he says. “Is there sexual context or connotation associated with the language, the gestures, the behavior, the written or verbal statements?”

Legally, the intent of a comment or action doesn’t matter, he says. What matters is how it’s perceived by the person on the other end. Something that one person feels is harmless or normal could be offensive or unwelcome to another person. The test is whether a “reasonable person”—a somewhat generalized term meant to include a social and cultural average of acceptability—would find the behavior or actions offensive, either by severity or duration.

Repeated sexual advances, comments on appearance or lifestyle, not-so-hilarious jokes and unwanted touching—even “friendly” hugs—fall in the repertoire of harassment. Compliments about someone’s appearance, for instance, may seem harmless, but can be less than positive for the recipient. “My intent may not be to degrade someone, but at the end of the day I’ve sexually patted someone on the head,” explains Turner C. Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

While women most often take the brunt of sexual harassment, men aren’t exempt. Men working in fields traditionally dominated by women, such as nursing or teaching at an elementary level, for example, are frequently subjected to sexual harassment based on their gender, says Bitton.

Also, notes Diekmann, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community are often targets of sexual harassment because they are typically at a lower position of power within society, making them more vulnerable.

“You see it go really all directions. Unfortunately, we get bogged down in this concept of intent rather than thinking about how a comment affected another person,” Bitton says. “[Sexual harassment] creates this power imbalance that grows over time and it leads to a degradation of a person’s power in the workplace.”

Because sexual harassment can lie in subtleties as well as overt behavior, Bitton suggests a quick check on whether or not something might have been sexual harassment: “One of the ways to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is to consider, ‘Would I say this comment to someone of the same sex or to a friend or someone I trust? Would I say this same comment to a male colleague or to a female colleague?”

What it can do

Although some forms of sexual harassment might seem minor to some, the effects of harassment on victims can be profound and long-lasting. Diekmann has studied the physical, emotional and psychological repercussions of being on the receiving end of sexual harassment—whether or not a victim defines it in so many words.

“There’s a whole host of negative things that can occur, and that’s even if the victim doesn’t even perceive they’re being sexually harassed. The mere fact of the behavior itself can lead to these things,” she says. “It’s such a negative experience that it has these negative consequences.”

Physically, victims might experience anxiety, loss of sleep, feelings of stress, headaches and nausea, and the effects could even lead to depression. Victims also often experience a loss of productivity and morale. The hostile work environment that can allow a sexual harassment to occur and fester can also be damaging to the workplace as a whole.


There are many reasons why a person might not define behavior as sexual harassment, says Diekmann. There is often a power imbalance between victim and perpetrator, for example, and a victim might fear retaliation or hostile scrutiny for speaking up. And because a person’s workplace can become their second home, in a sense, the feeling of betrayal from a member of their workplace “family” can be a difficult emotion for the brain to process, she says.

“A lot of times there’s a sort of defense mechanism to say, ‘It’s not me; it’s other people but not me,’ because it can be really damaging to admit that,” she says. “It’s somewhat of a betrayal, and this person is doing this to me—that’s really hard to acknowledge and psychologically admit that to yourself, especially when you’re depending on this person, when you’re trusting this person, when this person should be looking out for your best interests but they’re not.”

Most commonly, reporting sexual harassment has done little but open the victim up to scrutiny. When Anita Hill testified that she had been a victim of sexual harassment from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—then a nominee for the court, and her boss—she was accused of fabricating or exaggerating the claims as retaliation for a missed promotion. Diekmann says victims are often blamed for bringing on or misinterpreting the offensive behavior, particularly if they have brushed off ongoing harassment for a period before deciding to report it. That kind of environment will only make the effects of the harassment worse for victims.

“Especially if the victim has been silent and it’s been going on for a long time and then finally someone speaks up about it, there’s a lot of victim blaming that occurs. If they have the courage to speak up about it and this has been going on, this person needs to be supported,” she says.

What can be done

Establishing a clear set of rules—and sticking to it—is a vital first step to preventing all forms of harassment, says Nelson. And part of that policy needs to be a complaint mechanism that actually works, he says, “not just on paper … we’ve said it but we don’t actually do anything about it. There needs to be a functional, legitimate complaint mechanism, so that individuals who feel they have been subjected to harassment can speak up and say something with an assurance that the company treats it seriously and will respond appropriately.”

If allegations are made, Nelson says to conduct a serious investigation. “Don’t pass judgment initially; let the process do its job and then draw whatever the appropriate conclusions are after that process,” he adds. “If there has been inappropriate behavior, deal with it. Remove it from the workplace, because that’s not the kind of employer you want to be.”

Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts, points to an unusual model for employers to follow to create a sexual harassment-free zone. The Other Side Academy, which Grenny co-founded with entrepreneur Tim Stay, employs, educates and houses ex-convicts. The male and female ex-convicts, whom Grenny says have served five to 10 years in prison and have been arrested an average of 25 times, live and work together. And yet, since the academy’s founding in 2015, there have been almost no reports of sexual harassment or conduct—not even consensual, he says. That is thanks in large part to clear, enforced rules and strong leadership.

“This isn’t coming from the HR department or some compliance brochure from an outside training company—all of the outsourcing things bureaucracy tends to try to do with this. This is fundamentally a leadership problem. The leaders crisply and clearly explain the boundaries and what the rules are and how it works,” he says, noting that accountability starts at the top for not just sexual harassment, but subtle infringements of every rule. “If the leaders aren’t modeling that then the corruption spreads down through the whole organization. … If they are [modeling adherence to the rules], that reinforces the message for the rest of the organization; if they’re not, that sends the message that there’s wiggle room, that the message slides.”

Grenny adds, “Leaders have to craft a culture where people can speak up, one where everybody knows they can challenge anybody about anything that happens. If you confront something and make a little bit of social awkwardness for someone, that is far better than HR prosecuting cases and far better than someone getting dismissed from their job—although that may need to happen.”

To encourage employees to speak up, Bitton suggests companies provide training on bystander intervention. Co-workers who witness harassment can quickly shift the situation by redirecting the conversation or directly intervening. Bystanders are “a critical component in changing the culture” of an organization, says Bitton.

Men, in particular, have an important role to play, as they tend to wield more power in most companies. “Men need to speak up against it when they see it,” says Diekmann. “When they see someone making a sexually harassing comment, they need to find a way to stop it.”

UCASA offers free training on what constitutes sexual harassment and how to prevent it, says Bitton. Bitton himself says he challenges every workplace to address the problem, whether they’ve had a complaint or not.

“That lasting cultural change is how each person can make sure the #metoo campaign doesn’t disappear next month. Certainly we have a long way to go, but there are so many businesses and agencies in the state that are standing out not only for their recruitment but for the cultures they’ve created, and that’s a role every person can play,” he says.

Diekmann is also hoping for lasting change. “My hope is [this cultural moment] will motivate a lot of change in organizations and that it’s not just a momentary awareness and then it fades and things go back to normal—normal meaning bad. … Hopefully there’s this surge that will make it less likely that harassment will be as rampant as it has been.”

This post originally appeared in Utah Business Magazine. Click here to see the original article.