Establishing an intentional company culture is the only viable way to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, says Racheal Hebert, CEO of the nonprofit Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response.
During her address at the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge this afternoon—“Effective Prevention in the #MeToo Era”—Hebert noted that sexual harassment issues can be extremely costly for employers. In 2017, the Equal Opportunity Commission reported U.S. employers paid out $46.3 million in monetary benefits for employees in relation to sexual harassment charges, with the actual payout expected to be much higher.
To avoid legal expenses, high employee turnover rates and low company morale, Hebert said preemptive changes in workplace culture—such as rewriting certain policies and recruiting workers who adhere to company values—are critical.
“Your employees observe what culture allows,” she said, “and if your workplace culture avoids holding oppressors accountable, your employees will lose respect for you and for your company.”
Some points to consider: Does your company have a policy against employing someone who has been dismissed for sexual harassment at a previous job? What types of images and objects are in your workplace? Do your employees know who to talk to if they experience sexual harassment—and do you have an HR department?
It’s also important to note that workplace sexual harassment is usually more subtle than people realize, Hebert said. Unwelcome flirting, intrusive questions about a coworker’s sex life, comments about a person’s appearance and, if not applied to both men and women, terms of address like “honey,” “baby” or “sweetheart” are all considered forms of harassment.
While acknowledging the #MeToo movement has triggered some unintended backlash—such as male employers, fearful of crossing a line, being less inclined to mentor women or meet them for lunch—Hebert said it’s still important for companies to reassess their values.
“Your company is at risk if a culture remains where some, if not all, such conduct is tolerated,” Hebert said. “Check-the-box policies do not work, and online training is not effective. Prevention is protection.”