To Avoid Trouble, Companies Must Support Harassed Employees First
When news breaks about sexual harassment at a company like Uber, the public is likely to believe that the entire business has a cultural problem. In contrast, the same isn’t true for other issues, such as financial misconduct, which the public tends to see as a “bad apple” situation.
That’s according to a study released in June by Harvard Business Review, which surveyed 1,500 people in the U.S. On the other hand, the study concluded that when the public learns a company has responded to a sexual harassment claim in a timely, informative, and considerate manner toward the victim, people don’t perceive a cultural problem at the business.
There are plenty of instances where companies haven’t followed through with that kind of considerate and timely response, and it has been damning to not only the public image, but the company’s overall operations. (After the Uber allegations became public, for example, every time I planned to use a rideshare service, people said, “Don’t forget to take Lyft because Uber is a bad company.”)
When women came forward at Uber in 2017, alleging sexual assault and harassment, the scandal was not only about how pervasive the harassment was at Uber, but how Uber tried to “silence” its female employees through employment agreements. Non-disclosure agreements and mandatory arbitration clauses are ubiquitous in the corporate world and, in cases like this, it often does more damage than good to the company’s public image. Uber’s founder and CEO resigned, other employees were fired, and the company became embroiled in numerous lawsuits.
As a lawyer and life coach who helps women stop sexual harassment without quitting their jobs, I hear from almost every client that her employer’s response to her report of harassment was worse than the experience of harassment itself. One research scientist I worked with, whom I’ll call Megan, reported to multiple administrators in her university, and the responses ranged from, “I’m surprised you didn’t just have an affair with him,” to “Your statute of limitations has passed,” to “Do you want to file a formal complaint?” Another technician I’ll call Joy told me that when she reported to a high-level manager, the manager told her dismissively, “We’ve all been harassed,” and “He just seems like a man’s man. Other people like him.”
The responses Megan and Joy received made them lose faith in their employer, while before they reported, they were more likely to see the issue as isolated to the harasser. Here is the key reason why these responses don’t work: they don’t actually acknowledge the victim and her experience, nor do they give her support for protecting herself in the future.
Unfortunately, 81 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment, and around half of them say it happened at work. A striking 46 percent of women who have experienced sexual harassment at work say they left a job or switched careers because of it. It is easy to think of this as a problem that someone else has, but in most companies there is work to be done to stop the bloodletting of capable female employees.
So, what can companies do? Evolve from an investigation-only model of response to a power-dynamic model of response. A power-dynamic model of response addresses not only the harasser’s conduct, but also empowers the victim to effectively respond to any ongoing harassment, unfairness, or conflict. An investigation is all about the harasser and whether the harasser should receive correction. That entirely misses the victim’s experience of powerlessness.
If an employee reports sexual harassment and only encounters questions about what exactly happened and whether it could be a misunderstanding, her takeaway is often that the company is only interested in defending itself and not creating a safe, productive work environment for her.
By contrast, if the employee meets a response that shows interest in her experience, validates that she is allowed to protect herself at work (even against a supervisor), and offers resources that create a better work experience for her, she is more likely to feel that the company is her ally, rather than her second harasser.
When a company follows the power-dynamic model, it puts the employer and employee on the same side, rather than isolating the victim. Whether or not the company fires the harasser, using the power-dynamic model is more likely to retain the employee who did nothing wrong (remember, women leave their jobs because of harassment).
Beyond the ethical reasons to support employees, and the value of retaining employees who are costly to train, companies want to avoid the public embarrassment that comes with not supporting victims—like the immense fallout at Uber. When a victim of harassment receives a considerate, informative response, the public rarely hears about the harassment she experienced, and so it immediately reduces the chances of a public-perception problem.
Evolving to a power-dynamic response to sexual harassment requires companies to assume a woman reporting harassment has a good reason for her perspective, no matter what an investigation determines. The response empowers women to be safe at work, and it protects companies from the public perception of a pervasive bad culture.