Organizations should review current policies and company culture surrounding sexual harassment.

Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace starts at the top.

The behavior of employees goes a long way toward maintaining a safe work environment. But as many organizations devote time to determine how they should respond to the #MeToo movement, they should recognize that responsibility for preventing harassment ultimately rests with leadership.

"This is really hard," said Kate Bischoff, owner of the Minneapolis-based Thrive Law and Consulting and an attorney who specializes in human resources and employment law. "Even though conversations about sexual harassment can be uncomfortable, HR leaders and other executives shouldn't avoid the discussion, or even take a defensive stance and pretend it couldn't happen in their workplace," she said.

"HR should take the lead on this particular topic," Bischoff said. "This is an opportunity to seize the moment."

Seizing the #MeToo Moment

Organizations might avoid lengthy and expansive internal discussions about sexual harassment, possibly because they believe it doesn't happen behind their doors. Odds are, though, some form of harassment occurs, but the victims are unwilling to report it.

Consider how a recent CareerBuilder survey revealed how 72 percent of those who claimed they were sexually harassed at work didn't report the behavior, and 54 percent didn't confront the person responsible. That aligns with a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) study from 2016 that found about three out of four workers never spoke with a supervisor or union representative about harassment they had faced. Victims of harassment often deny or downplay the gravity of the offense, or attempt to ignore or endure the behavior, the study said.

But with the #MeToo movement encouraging victims to not be afraid or ashamed of the abuse they suffered, more people are speaking about past offenses and could also be more willing to report sexual harassment when it happens. Future surveys and studies will ultimately reveal whether victims believe they have support in the workplace to report harassment.

That's why organizations need to seize the moment and review current policies and company culture, Bischoff said. HR leaders and top executives have to create a safe workplace where employees fully recognize boundaries and treat one another with respect. They shouldn't view the #MeToo movement simply as a social discussion that should be avoided to risk offending anyone, Bischoff said. The movement isn't "anti-man" but rather a moment for reflection and review for all, she said.

Facebook shares that view. The social media company released its sexual harassment policy, urging other companies to copy some or all of the guidelines to improve their work environments. The policy shows that Facebook requires managers to have sexual harassment training, and the company reserves the right to fire employees if they retaliate against a co-worker who makes a harassment claim.

The EEOC defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature." Employers can craft a policy that narrows that definition and spell out types of conduct — including touching of any sort, even a pat on the back — that are considered harassment, Bischoff said.

The government could provide further guidance on preventing sexual harassment. A House bill aims to create a national commission to find ways to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, believes a dialogue is needed to clarify what constitutes sexual harassment.

"Today, sexual harassment is being discussed as if everyone knows what it is," Holmes Norton wrote in The Hill. "Some women have described contact that is more akin to sexual assault, while others have cited contact that would not be harassment unless it were unwelcome. We are already hearing of risks that employers will overcorrect by becoming wary of hiring some women or being alone with female employees, or that ordinary human relations will become chilled."

Failed Responsibility is a Liability

While the conversation plays out, HR leaders and top executives still need to take steps now to prevent sexual harassment because they are responsible for setting expectations, Bischoff said. As she and other employment law experts contend, a lack of responsibility leads to legal liability.

"U.S. companies spent an estimated $2.2 billion last year on insurance policies covering the legal fallout from sexual harassment, racial discrimination and unfair-dismissal accusations, with the market projected to grow to $2.7 billion by 2019," The Washington Post reports.

"It adds up pretty quickly," said Eric Meyer, an employment lawyer and partner at the legal firm Dilworth Paxson. "And that's why most companies, when faced with sexual harassment claims, hopefully will conduct a strong investigation, support the victim and take steps that are reasonably designed to end the harassment if there is harassment."

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