Let me guess. When you read the title of this article, you immediately think “How can there possibly be anything unintentional about sexual harassment?” Or maybe, you thought to yourself, “Yes! Someone finally understands that I shouldn’t get in trouble for just being nice.” It’s also possible that your opinion falls somewhere between these two reactions.
The potential range of reactions to this single headline illustrates one of the problems facing businesses as they try to create effective plans to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.
Identify Cases of Sexual Harassment
Employees don’t always avoid conduct or discussion they find offensive in the workplace. For this reason, rules were created to ensure that individuals could earn a living without feeling harassed.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment to include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature if this conduct interferes with the victim’s ability to work or creates a hostile work environment.
Yet, despite years of policy statements, training, guidance, and litigation, research has demonstrated that still not everyone agrees when it comes to identifying sexual harassment. This is particularly true when the offending conduct isn’t overtly aggressive.
In their Harvard Business Review article, To Reduce Sexual Misconduct, Help People Understand How Their Advances Might Be Received, Vanessa K. Bohns and Lauren DeVincent explain the problem this way.
Although there are numerous explanations for the widespread sexual harassment and assault allegations that have recently come to light across various industries, in our research we have identified one potential contributor related to the psychology of avowed unwitting perpetrators: a cognitive blind spot that makes them oblivious to how trapped their unwanted advances can make their targets feel.
Simply put, some sexual harassers really can’t understand how their comment on someone’s appearance, aggressive romantic pursuit, or conversation sprinkled with sexual innuendo might make someone else uncomfortable.
You might think that’s not possible but real studies indicate otherwise. This type of misunderstanding is entirely different than intentional actions. Yet, these situations are still a problem that must be addressed. What can we as employers or employees do to reduce this type of “I didn’t mean to” sexual harassment?
Better Understand the Problem and One Another.
Communication is the key to reducing these types of sexual harassment claims.
To effectively prevent sexual harassment, it is important for employers and employees to understand that an individual can feel that their work environment is hostile regardless of the offender’s intent. Likewise, a subordinate may feel obligated to fake a smile even when a supervisor is making him or her feel uncomfortable.
Employers must communicate clear policy standards that include guidelines for what type of speech is and is not acceptable in the workplace. Additionally, employees should receive ongoing guidance and support so that they feel comfortable asking questions and, when necessary, making complaints. And most importantly, no one should be made to feel that his or her concern is invalid–even if no one else is bothered.
Many people have very strong reactions when the topic of sexual harassment comes up, making it a difficult topic to bring up for discussion. But it is through being open to and encouraging those difficult discussions that employers can make real progress toward reducing sexual harassment complaints in their workplaces.