How Sexual Harassment at Work Affects Employers
It’s hard to remember a time when Uber was just a ride hailing company, just another hot startup, just another tech unicorn and not the poster child for sexual harassment and unethical behavior.
But once Susan Fowler1 published her blog post highlighting the illegal actions of her supervisors and the lengths the human resources department went to in not punishing, reporting, or doing anything to curb the harassment in that workplace, the floodgates were opened and now the first two suggestions that come up when you Google Uber are “uber sexual harassment” or “uber harassment”.
Uber’s harassment story is far from over, and the company clearly has a long road ahead of them to clear their name. But it did have something of an ending for the more than 400 employees2 and former employees who either joined a class action lawsuit against the company or sued them directly themselves. Uber paid out $10 million3 in settlements in the lawsuits and fired more than 20 people4, including senior executives and forcing out the founder and CEO.
Uber wasn’t the first company in line to get an overhaul based on harassment allegations and it wasn’t last. Other companies weren’t far behind. After internal investigations Google reported they had fired 48 people because of harassment in the workplace. Intel forced its chief out. Fox News head Roger Ailes and personality Bill O’Reilly were fired over sexual harassment allegations. And simply searching “sexual harassment work” brings up any number of other company names and powerful members that were sued, forced out, or under fire.
Many of these very large companies made the news because of seriously toxic cultures that were not checked. And these companies paid the price for that by firing people and having to go through the expense to replace and train someone, low morale from all employees, reputation and brand blowback, a lack of gender diversity, and frequently monetary expenses when they get sued or fined.
And sometimes, even when companies take action to stop sexual harassment, they may not consider the repercussions of the actions they take. For example, even though Google fired several of their high-ranking leaders for inappropriate behavior at the workplace, they gave those employees large severance packages that many Google employees – and the press when they found out – thought were inappropriate.
In a survey on Blind, the mobile app where people can post anonymous comments about their workplace, about the #MeToo movement, 31% of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment at work. In these results Salesforce and AirBnB had the most respondents who said they had experienced sexual harassment.
In another survey from Blind, employees were asked if their employers had given “high-dollar exit packages to employees accused of sexual harassment.” Google led the way, no doubt influenced by the large number of headlines reporting the payouts some executives had received. But Intel and Booking.com came in ahead of Uber and Microsoft.
The rise in conversations about sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behavior aren’t just affecting the biggest companies, and not every case is making the news. Sexual harassment is a problem nationwide and across all industries and company sizes. Many of these large companies, like Google and even Uber, are big enough to weather the storm around the complaints and bad press at their companies – but still faced costly repercussions.
Smaller companies are even less equipped to handle the potential lawsuits and bad press that come from an unsafe work environment. The average settlement for a company in a sexual harassment lawsuit is in excess of $150,000. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government watchdog for creating a safe workplace, said the number of lawsuits it filed against employers for harassment rose by 50%5 in 2018 over 2017. The EEOC also said it had recovered nearly $70 million for the victims of workplace sexual harassment – that was up by more than $20 million from the previous year.
There are important steps employers can take in order to not become another statistic on the EEOC’s website. These steps can help foster an already diverse and open workplace, or these steps can help steer a company back on the right track if they’ve experience problems with harassment among their ranks.
Have an effective reporting system.
Employers should have an effective reporting system in place in order to give employees a voice and somewhere they can turn to help resolve or stop harassing behaviors in the workplace. This should be something more than an email to a member of HR (or a leader in the company if there is no HR). Having an effective reporting system in place can also keep employers from being liable in a potential future lawsuit against their company.
The Farragher-Ellerth defense is “an affirmative defense employers may use to defend against claims of hostile work environment harassment by supervisors or their superiors. Employers may attempt to use the defense if:
No tangible adverse employment action was taken against the plaintiff (for example, no discharge, demotion, or undesirable reassignment).
The employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior. For example, a harassment policy demonstrates reasonable care to prevent harassing behavior. For a model policy, see Standard Document, Anti-Harassment Policy.
The plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to otherwise avoid harm (for example, by not taking advantage of reporting procedures outlined in an anti-harassment policy).”6
Bevoco is an awesome resource for employers looking to foster a culture of zero tolerance for harassment. This tool allows employers to train all employees on how to prevent harassment in the workplace. It also is a safe, secure, and simple way for victims to report harassment and work to resolve the issue either by talking directly to the harasser or working with HR to investigate and document the incident.
Encourage people to report.
Once you have an effective system in place for reporting, encourage everyone to report – not just the victim. Frequently harassment at the workplace isn’t an isolated incident and can be witnessed by several different people. By encouraging everyone to report harassment, it can take the onus off the victim and allow witnesses to either address the harasser directly or report it to HR themselves.
It could be as simple as the idea of having a designated driver – companies can have employees designate themselves watchdogs to encourage appropriate behavior or report when they see it happening to someone else. Having everyone actively involved in stopping bad behavior can keep a problem from getting out of hand in the first place and leading to people leaving the company or lawsuits.
Train your employees.
Don’t assume because you’re hiring otherwise educated, bright employees that they’re going to be knowledgeable on harassment. Training is important for all employees and frequent conversations on what harassment can look like, how to report, and how to resolve workplace issues is a good way to get the message out beyond annual trainings. And training can go far beyond just an annual video and quiz on sexual harassment, employers can and should look at training on other things that can contribute to an uncomfortable workplace like unconscious bias.
Employers should work to establish clear lines of what is and is not appropriate in the workplace. They should also make sure all their employees truly understand their policy. In a survey by SHRM, 94% of companies said they had a harassment policy in place, but only 78% of employees surveyed said they knew their company had one. Training effectively and regularly can help ensure all your employees are on the right page.
Put women in prominent positions.
Companies that tend to make the news for egregiously inappropriate behavior frequently have one thing in common: few women in positions of power. Having a balanced diversity of leadership with both genders empowers women at companies to feel like they won’t be retaliated against if they experience harassment in the workplace and also helps foster an environment of inclusion. Sometimes harassment occurs because a powerful man tries to take advantage of someone working under them, putting women in powerful positions balances out that dynamic7.
It’s not all bad news though. While there are many complex issues that affect today’s workplace, there are a lot of good things happening too. SHRM reported that in the year since #MeToo rocked the world, one-third of employers interviewed responded that they have changed their behaviors over the last year to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in their workplace. They said the driving force behind these changes was to affect employee morale, engagement, and productivity. Of the employees interviewed, 72% said they were happy with the changes their company was making, however ⅓ still felt that their workplace fosters sexual harassment.
Things are getting better, but the workplace environment is still in need of the proper tools and techniques to truly create a safe workplace for all of their employees.
Bevoco is a cloud-based software solution that simplifies the process of documenting, reporting, and mitigating cases of bullying, discrimination, and sexual harassment in the workplace. Simple to install even in large, geographically dispersed organizations, Bevoco provides employees and employers with a highly secure and powerful vehicle for managing— and reducing—the individual and organizational risks resulting from inappropriate behavior at work.
Bevoco creates a highly secure, encrypted digital vault for each employee into which he or she places contemporaneous documentation of cases of retaliation, bullying, discrimination, and sexual harassment. Documentation can consist of personal notes that the injured party creates, identification of witnesses, computer and smartphone screenshots, photos, and even videos. An injured party’s documentation is locked. That person has complete control of the information in his or her digital vault. At the appropriate time—as determined exclusively by the injured party—they can begin a dialogue with the accused to try and resolve the problem directly, or unlock the case and share with the Human Resources Department.
This innovative application also includes powerful analytical tools that include a dashboard for Human Resources to view the traffic and see at a glance the number, types, locations, and severity of bullying, discrimination, and harassment cases in their company. The result is clear visibility and risk mitigation—for the first time—into the magnitude of this serious organizational problem.