Real People, Real Impact: Sexual Harassment

March 1, 2023 | Diversity & Inclusion | 6 min read

“Do you really think that educated grown men need to be taught not to grope their coworkers?” asked Louise Fitzgerald, a psychology professor and sexual harassment researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Do congressmen really not know that they aren’t supposed to pull their genitals out or greet a staffer at the door wearing a towel? The fact that people don’t know, well, that is nonsense.”

According to Fitzgerald, the point of sexual harassment training should not wholly be to educate employees on what constitutes harassment. Instead, it should help victims better understand what they can do about it.

This is especially important when we realize that one in fifteen in fifteen people (6.3 percent) have experienced sexual violence and harassment at work – with women being the most exposed (8.2 percent of women compared to 5.0 percent of men).

Yet, roughly 58% of women harassed at work do not file complaints, whether from fear of retaliation or concern that their managers will not believe them. Why is this happening, and what role can sexual harassment training play in improving women’s comfort and trust in reporting the harassment they experience?

Let’s take a look at one woman’s story.

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Rula’s Experience

Rula had just gotten a job at a large corporation when she was approached by a coworker who claimed he was her mentor. He had a secure position at the company and was very friendly and personal with Rula – the first day they met, he walked her to her car and asked for her phone number.

As a new hire and mentee, Rula assumed that the coworker wanted to learn more about her professionally. However, it soon became clear to her that this wasn’t the case.

Rula admitted: “Anytime you invade somebody’s personal space, it’s uncomfortable. When it’s a member of the opposite sex, even more so.”

She was concerned that her mentor was not teaching her what she needed to know to be successful in her new role. Instead, he consistently talked to her about himself and began saying things like, “You’re so hot,” or “You should come over and take a dip in my pool.” He even made inappropriate remarks about her body.

“It’s not a good feeling,” Rula said. “It wasn’t flattering; it was creepy.”

Rula tried to advocate for herself and told him to stop, but it didn’t make a difference. When she finally decided that she’d had enough, she spoke with her manager -- not about the harassment, but about getting a new mentor. Her request was granted, and two other women at the office approached her and mentioned they were grateful that somebody finally spoke up.

Because Rula didn’t go into specifics about her experience, nothing happened to the coworker until a different female coworker filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. He was eventually fired. This time, Rula was among the women at the office who expressed gratitude to that female coworker for speaking up.

Encourage Employees to Speak Up

Sexual harassment is difficult to navigate. As we can see from Rula’s experience -- and that of the other women at her office -- it can be difficult to know what to say to your harasser in the moment or how to help or intervene as a bystander.

Rula advises anyone experiencing this kind of treatment to be firm in the moment, know yourself, and know your boundaries. You should never be afraid to speak to someone and tell them precisely what happened, whether it is a coworker, manager, or supervisor.

This is sound advice but, as we know, hard to execute for many reasons. Knowing how you can help encourage your employees to speak up and not be afraid is important.

As an employer, it is essential to implement sexual harassment training that accomplishes three things:

DEFINES SEXUAL HARASSMENT. Training should help employees identify victims and the legal criteria for unlawful harassment. They should also be able to discern instances of sexual harassment that fall short of illegal harassment but are nevertheless unacceptable to your organization.

HELPS EMPLOYEES RECOGNIZE SEXUAL HARASSMENT. Through real-life examples, employees should be able to recognize unlawful sexual harassment whether they find themselves victims, onlookers, supervisors, or even those who may be misbehaving. Training should also expose unconscious biases that could lead to unintended discriminatory behavior.

PROVIDES A PATH TO ENDING THE HARASSMENT. Finally, the training should help those who feel they’re being harassed address the issue, from talking to the harasser, to seeking the help of a manager or HR, to understanding their right to seek redress with an outside agency, such as the EEOC. Further, those who observe inappropriate behavior should be encouraged to report it, knowing they are protected from retaliation.

Effective Sexual Harassment Training

Workplace harassment can have severe and lasting impacts on individuals. It can lead to physical and emotional stress, low self-esteem, difficulty concentrating, and decreased productivity. Additionally, victims of harassment may experience financial and career setbacks.

Creating a respectful and inclusive environment starts by educating employees on their pivotal role in eradicating harassment from the workplace. The best way to do this is through practical training, which needs to be:

EMOTIONAL. Explaining the legal ramifications of non-compliant behavior is essential; however, it is just the start. Effective anti-harassment training should spark a respectful dialogue about what behavior is inappropriate by providing an emotional relation to the examples presented in training.

ENGAGING. Regardless of rank, sexual harassment training is for everyone in the organization. Being transparent and vocalizing that an organization’s sexual harassment prevention policies apply to all levels is particularly important — sexual harassment is often pegged as an act of lust but, in reality, it is, more times than not, an abuse of power.

DIVERSE. Training should demonstrate cultural competence by instilling values and principles that promote behaviors, attitudes, and structures that enable employees to work effectively and cross-culturally. It should also communicate the value of diversity, the importance of self-assessment, and how employees can personally manage differences among coworkers.

Organizations need to prevent harassment through compliance training because it creates a safer and more positive work environment for all employees, leading to increased productivity, morale, and retention.

It is also crucial from a legal perspective, as harassment can result in costly lawsuits for organizations. By providing training and making it clear that harassment will not be tolerated, organizations can protect themselves and their employees from the harmful effects of harassment.

Creating a safe work environment where everyone -- from top to bottom -- feels protected from harassment will significantly improve the office dynamic, keep your team happy, increase productivity, and help your organization be as successful as possible.

This is the second installment in Skillsoft’s three-part series on workplace harassment, which includes intimidating, offensive, or abusive conduct. Whether it manifests as name-calling, physical assault, threats, or something else, workplace harassment can impact real people within your organization.

Rula is not alone. She is among more than eight percent of women globally who have experienced sexual harassment in their working life.

Learn why harassment training has historically failed and how you can make a real impact on your employees through effective training.