HomeHRUnintended Consequences of the Sexual Harassment Epidemic

Unintended Consequences of the Sexual Harassment Epidemic

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Unintended Consequences of the Sexual Harassment EpidemicIf the term “epidemic” sounds like too harsh of a word to describe the uptick in sexual harassment allegations last year, consider these statistics:

  • According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 27% of Americans claim to have been a victim of sexual harassment on the job (42% of women and 11% of men). When the same question was asked in 1998, only 19% of Americans claimed to have been harassed.
  • According to the same 2017 survey, 69% of Americans believe that sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem. That number is up from 50% in 1998.
  • In 1998, 53% of the Americans surveyed felt that people are too sensitive when it comes to sexual harassment. While in the 2017 survey, the number had flopped: 30% believe people are too sensitive, while 53% think people are not sensitive enough.

These numbers suggest that sexual harassment in America is widespread and increasing—the dictionary definition of epidemic.

In addition to the logical consequences, including an increase in the filing of lawsuits and the implementation of stricter sexual harassment workplace policies, there have been unintended ones as well. Below we explore two that are generating buzz within the industry.

Forcing HR Departments to Look Inward

Human resource departments haven’t been viewed in the best light in the media. Recent news stories have suggested that in some harassment cases HR was aware there was an issue, but failed to act on it. Or worse, as in the case of Harvey Weinstein, forwarded the complaints to the harasser. Which raises the question, is it HR’s job to protect the company or the employee?

The case of Weinstein is an extreme one. After all, how could HR convince an all-men board (including Harvey Weinstein’s own brother) that Harvey should be removed from his own company? Unfortunately, similar situations occur in less glamorous industries. The Uber case is all too familiar: the “sweeping under the rug” of allegations involving top performers or executives who are viewed more valuable than their accusers.

In a Viewpoint article for SHRM, Jan Bowler a longtime, retired HR practitioner suggests that HR professionals examine themselves and take action to earn the trust of employees. “Consider that the ones who need training to prevent sexual harassment are HR people, not just execs and employees. If the executive team fails to hold the moral/ethical high ground in an organization, isn’t it HR’s job to step up and do so? And if we fail to do that, aren’t we enablers of bad behavior?”

A Hypersensitive Work Environment

In a New York Times article, Claire Cain Miller observed the strain that recent allegations have put on the relationship between men and women in the workplace “Some Silicon Valley investors have declined one-on-one meetings with women…on Wall Street, certain senior men have tried to avoid closed-door meetings with junior women…and in TV news, some male executives have scrupulously minded their words in conversations with female talent.”

While heightened awareness has improved people’s behavior, it has also led to the avoidance of one-on-one contact for fear of gossip or false allegations. Miller fears this behavior could impact careers “potentially depriving [men and women] of the kind of relationships that lead to promotions or investments.”

Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook has gone so far to say that she has heard “rumblings of a backlash.” She warns that the surge of harassment claims could result in male leaders of companies becoming reluctant to hire female employees. Despite this, she remains optimistic, calling the current movement against sexual harassment in the workplace a “watershed moment” and an “opportunity that must not be lost.”

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