1 In 5 Employees Don't Feel Companies Care About Sexual Harassment — Here's How Employers Can Change That

Hannah Burton/Bustle

Since the hashtag became a movement in October, #MeToo has forced the fact of workplace sexual harassment to the front of the news cycle. As allegation after allegation of serial sexual misconduct by powerful men against their female colleagues surfaced, companies across industries vowed to tighten up their harassment policies. But according to a new survey, some companies have failed to produce results: A reported one in five tech-employed respondents felt their employers were dismissive of sexual harassment and even assault complaints.

The findings come from Blind, an app that allows people to talk openly and anonymously about their professional environments. They posed users one simple question: Does management take sexual harassment and assault claims seriously at your workplace? Participants could answer yes, no, or I don’t know, and of the 4,154 people who participated, over 18 percent said no. While about 42 percent said yes, 36 responded that they didn’t know.

According to a press release, previous blind surveys have found that about one third of workers have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment on the job. In a separate poll of 3,000 Blind users, 43 percent said they felt uncomfortable reporting misconduct to their companies’ HR departments. Taken altogether, the data suggests a trust deficit between management and personnel.

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A poll CNBC conducted in December, as a wave of companies announced changes to or cancelled their holiday parties for fear booze-fueled groping would run rampant, found that about 20 percent of U.S. adults experienced workplace sexual harassment. And while the typical corporate solution to this widespread problem typically involves a mandatory training to refresh everyone on the employer’s discrimination policies and reporting processes, we know that parking people in front of a comically outdated video or a digital slideshow doesn’t tend to have the desired effect. You’ve probably sat through a few of these stale presentations in your working life, but even one is enough to understand why they don’t work. Most of us sit there covertly checking our emails or clicking rapid-fire through the text until we can check the box and say we’ve completed the obligatory task. And then, the people who would benefit most from a stringent reminder of what, exactly, constitutes harassment are typically the people who quickly dismiss the program.

The Reason Employees Distrust Their Workplace's Management

While it helps to have figures high up in the company address harassment directly, even participate in harassment trainings together with their workforce, management’s support has to come “in an overall context where you’re behaving in a way that’s consistent with what you’re telling people, otherwise they won’t believe you,” Elizabeth Tippett, associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, tells Bustle. Tippett, who has analyzed decades’ worth of sexual harassment training videos in the course of her research, knows a thing or 12 about how to reach employees. Granting that many employers do actually conduct much more thorough investigations into complaints than the employees themselves ever end up seeing, she explains that the dearth of transparency contributes to a lack of credibility.

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“Actions speak louder than words,” she says. People talk, and when employees distrust management’s capacity to handle a discrimination report, that’s often because the workers have heard from their colleagues about complaints fumbled or neglected — or worse, that complaints led to some kind of career blow. What those employees aren’t seeing is the investigation that may well have taken place; they only see employers’ apparent failure to act.

“[Employers are] often so afraid of telling people, for privacy reasons, about what they’re doing and how they do it and why; about why they do the things they do,” Tippett says. If they begin clarifying what their reporting process is, employees might not feel as though they’re being left alone in the dark while the person who made that gross comment or groped their butt keeps typing unfazed on their laptop three seats away, day in and day out.

But Here's What Management Can Do

Tippett suggests management break with the widely held policy of keeping victims out of the loop, and instead let the victim know how their harasser was disciplined. Acknowledging that employers often withhold this information out of concerns for people’s privacy and due process, she suggests adding a disclaimer to the corporate harassment protocol: Warn people in your policies that if you make a disciplinary decision, that may be disclosed to the victim as part of the process.”

But making employees feel safe at work also involves expanding our conception of what constitutes inappropriate behavior outside legal definitions. A supervisor’s off-the-cuff sexist comment, for example, should beget more than just a verbal wrist slap because, Tippett says, it suggests ”the supervisor seems to have these discriminatory values and ways of thinking about people who work with him.”

“At some point in the future, the supervisor will be tasked to make a decision about an employee’s career, and their decision will be tainted by the fact that the employee heard them say this and they evidently hold these problematic attitudes towards the people that report to them,” she continues. “A comment like that should be treated like a breach of trust on the part of the supervisor to uphold the company’s discrimination policy.” It should be taken seriously.

It may simply be that employers seem to brush aside discrimination complaints because they assume that’s a problem for another company, certainly not theirs. “Part of [rebuilding trust] is accepting the possibility that it might be happening at your company, too, and thinking hard about how to fix it,” Tippett says. Because if the movement that sparked this entire conversation has taught us one thing, it’s that no industry is free from the influence of gender and racial inequalities that leave one group feeling they can act however they want with impunity. Sexual harassment happens everywhere.