RoadMap is partnering with 9to5, the National Association for Working Women to combat sexual harassment & bullying. Together, we offer training and coaching for social justice organizations, unions and others. Recently, on the heels of the 27th anniversary of Anita Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment, 9to5 staff member Linda Garcia Barnard got this op-ed published. It is a stark reminder that we have more work to do in creating safety and a culture of consent.
For more information on RoadMap and 9to5’s training and coaching please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
How we can make it safer to report sexual misconduct in the workplace
Linda Garcia Barnard Published 11:37 a.m. CT Oct. 11, 2018 | Updated 2:09 p.m. CT Oct. 11, 2018
Last Thursday, October 11th, was the 27th anniversary of Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was considering the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hill agreed to do her civic duty reluctantly, and no wonder. She described the actions that she said she endured from her boss, searing one-sided discussions of porn movies, sexual prowess and pubic hairs into the minds of the American public.
That hearing was the first time many women — and men — learned that unwanted workplace sexual conduct had a name, that it was illegal, and that something could be done about it.
But the burden of stopping and preventing sexual misconduct shouldn’t rest solely on those who experience it. Individuals who witness or know about the behavior must step forward and be part of the solution. Above all, employers have the most significant responsibilities under the law, and for good reason. While an employee may speak up against a harasser, only the employer has the power to impose consequences for misconduct and ensure that it will stop.
To ensure zero tolerance of sexual misconduct, employers should have strong and clear policies created with employee involvement to ensure they are successful, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Council found in a comprehensive 2016 report on the problem. Those policies should require in-person, ongoing, effective training for all staff with a commitment from top management that complaints will be addressed through fair and impartial investigations.
Not just any training will do. Training merely to fend off lawsuits isn’t effective, research shows.
When there is an allegation, the investigation must allow both sides to be heard to ensure due process as well as guarantee the complainant is safe from retaliation. If the investigation finds violations of the policy, regardless of the position of the harasser, there should be appropriate and clear consequences.
Many of those who are harassed fail to come forward because it’s often a difficult process. A big problem is figuring out who to tell: Often the only channel is through your supervisor, who may be the harasser. If it’s the CEO, you’re often told to go to the human resources department, a person who likely is supervised by the CEO. Therefore, it is critical to have more than one channel for reporting, including an independent, outside expert reachable through an 800-number when the accused is a high-level or high-profile individual.
Sexual misconduct continues to be a paramount issue from high school campuses to corporate boardrooms. It occurs at all socioeconomic levels from fast food chains to elite country clubs. Those harassed often say “no” in multiple ways but are unable to make the problem end on their own. If workplace conduct is unwelcome, offensive, and repeated — and if it makes it harder to hold a job or do your work — it’s likely illegal harassment. If you’re physically attacked, it’s assault and against the law.
Why didn’t Anita Hill come forward sooner? Why do some victims wait years to share their stories? Only a quarter to a third of people who are harassed report it to a supervisor or union representative, according to a 2017 New York Times report citing a meta-analysis of studies by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of British Columbia. The reason most often is fear of retaliation, the researchers found.
The only way to assure people that it is safe to come forward is to make it safe to come forward. That means thanking rather than punishing people who speak up. It means taking an honest look at company culture, identifying problem areas and being transparent about what steps are being taken to correct them. It means doing regular assessments and seeking employee input. Employers who take this approach will throw out gag rules and mandatory arbitration and will be concerned, instead, with solving the problem.
Nearly 30 years after Anita Hill came forward, we are beginning to see a cultural shift: More women like her are speaking up, even though barriers remain. Good businesses will work to remove those barriers because they understand strong sexual misconduct policies make for better workplaces.
Linda Garcia Barnard is national operations director for 9to5, National Association of Working Women in Milwaukee. Email: LindaGB@9to5.org