There has been a constant stream of public accounts of famous and powerful men that face allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Al Franken, Roy Moore. And before there was Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Donald Trump. Sadly, the list could go on and on.
This will be the first of many posts about sexual harassment in the workplace that I’ll write over the next several weeks. There is a lot to cover, but I’d like to first address a series of questions I’ve encountered and I continue to hear with the most recent public allegations: If there was harassment/assault, then why didn’t they complain at the time? Is it really a big deal if no one said anything about it?
Sexual harassment at work affects millions of individuals in the U.S. every year, creating daily nightmares for these workers. Many employees go to work each day afraid to visit specific areas of their office building, uneasy about an upcoming conference call, or even walking alone in an office hallway because they know it may require an interaction with their sexual harasser. And even if individuals haven’t experienced this personally, it’s often easy to think of a time they’ve witnessed inappropriate comments directed at a co-worker. A Washington Post-ABC poll found 54 percent of women say they have received unwanted, inappropriate advances inside or outside the workplace. A third of women say they’ve experienced sexual advances from a male co-worker or man with influence over their position, and a third of this group identifies the advances as constituting sexual abuse. As a whole, 64% of Americans view sexual harassment of women in the workplace as a serious problem. But only 20-30% of workplace harassment incidents are ever reported. (source; source) So, why don’t more people report?
At the core of many worker’s decision not to report harassment is a belief that regardless of their actions, justice will not occur. Incredibly, in that same Washington Post-ABC poll, 94% of women that have experienced unwelcome sexual advances at work say men avoid facing any consequences because of it. Ninety-four percent! That’s an incredible number. An incredibly depressing number.
You may now think, “Why are they so fatalistic? Why are they overly pessimistic?” It’s because their skepticism is rational. Their fear of retaliation, of not being believed, of having their reputation tarnished is well placed and reasonable. Women have seen time and time again how victims are ostracized, and how employers protect harassers that hold positions of power. It’s often this same sense of security that allows the harasser to feel protected at work, knowing that there will not likely be any negative consequence to his inappropriate behavior. It’s this power dynamic that lies at the center of most sexual harassment.
Many employees also have a rational fear that complaints may trigger retaliation, whether from the accused, co-workers, or management. The retaliation can be subtle or severe. Subtle examples include where the employee is required to change teams or departments while the accused suffers no consequences, or vague comments about “communication issues” suddenly show up in performance evaluations. More severe retaliation can lead to the smearing of their reputation and the end of an accuser’s professional career. Many workers know that organizations—including Human Resources departments—prioritize the organization’s’ interests above all else. And even if an employer takes steps that appear to take complaints seriously, companies often treat complaint procedures “as mini litigation defense centers” that care more about protecting the company rather than their employees. Just as power protects many of the accused, this same power can be used to crush less powerful workers that complain about harassment.
I have a brief aside I’d like to share that has helped me better understand this issue. When I was Director of the Business Services Division at the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office, I had the pleasure of working closely with the Safe at Home Program, an address confidentiality program. Many of the program participants were victims of domestic violence and assault. Domestic violence is, obviously, not the same as workplace sexual harassment. However, I was surprised that I’d occasionally hear a similar question regarding these victims: “Why didn’t domestic abuse victims leave their abusers?” Similar to sexual harassment, many people skeptically approached the stories of these survivors, doubting the severity of their suffering because they often chose to keep their tragedies a secret. And I heard this regarding a program where the participants made efforts to actually leave their abuser.
Yet, similar to workplace harassment, these victims’ fear is rational. As the excellent 2014 documentary Private Violence poignantly demonstrates, domestic abuse victims’ fears of further violence against them by their abusers is well-founded in their own experiences and greater domestic abuse data. Seventy-five percent of domestic violence-related murders happen after the partner leaves. We may encourage victims to make hard decisions, but we must never diminish how hard those decisions actually are.
Again, I’m not equating domestic abuse and workplace sexual harassment, but I think both examples illustrate how we should continue to challenge society’s presumptions when approaching victims. Workplace harassment can become paralyzing for those that experience it. It’s hard to see a path forward, and it’s not because of the victim’s weakness or deficiency. Many of these individuals are stronger than most could imagine. These individuals didn’t ask for this to happen to them. It’s a difficult process for anyone to maneuver through, and we should understand the gravity of their decisions when it could affect the rest of their careers.
Finally, should allegations of sexual harassment be investigated? Yes. Should the accused be afforded the opportunity to dispute the allegations? Yes. Should we as a society be careful not to quickly judge the guilt of individuals before understanding facts. Yes. But should we all try to be more understanding of the battles victims of workplace sexual harassment are forced to face, and try to understand how difficult of a decision it may be to come forward? Absolutely. Questions that seek to delegitimize the victim ignore the harder questions about the behavior of the harasser.
If you have questions about sexual harassment in the workplace, I encourage you to speak with someone. That may be an attorney, a friend, or someone else you can trust. I’d be happy to speak with you about your circumstances.
These series of posts will hopefully help educate individuals about sexual harassment at work and better equip those that have experienced such harassment. There is hope that those that have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace can find justice.
UPCOMING: How the Law Protects Workers Against Sexual Harassment
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