Is sexual harassment on the rise in U.S. workplaces, or are more people stepping forward and filing complaints?

Regardless which statement is accurate, harassment has become a critical HR issue for businesses large and small following the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

And for companies that don’t have a plan to build awareness and address harassment – or even worse, have no desire to address it – the negative impact could be significant.

When Harassment Isn’t Addressed

Although more and more people recognize harassment as an issue worthy of attention, most people believe it doesn’t happen where they work. A late 2017 NBC News-SurveyMonkey poll discovered that 81% of respondents believe sexual harassment is a problem for U.S. businesses, yet 90% believe it doesn’t occur where they work.

The staggering number of public figures falling from grace along with an increase in the number of lawsuits and complaints filed (up 50% and 13%, respectively, in 2018 per the EEOC) indicates that harassment is, unfortunately, alive and well throughout American workplaces.

Though much has been written about how to stop harassment, many small business owners may not be aware of the impact harassment – sexual or otherwise – can have on their businesses. Possible consequences include:

“A single sexual harassment claim can be enough to dramatically shape public perception of a company and elicit perceptions of structural unfairness. In the public’s mind, there seems to be no such thing as a bad apple.”
– (Harvard Business Review “Study on Public Backlash Against Sexual Harassment”)

Morale decline. When someone is subjected to harassment, the emotional impact is significant. And if the issue isn’t reported and continues, the victim often becomes negative. Depending on the offense and what level of the organization it comes from, the victim may not share the situation out of fear of retribution. What makes morale even worse is when other employees are aware that harassment occurs consistently with no retribution. And when management turns a blind eye to an offender because they are a top producer, morale often plummets further and productivity suffers.

Absenteeism. When employees begin missing work to avoid harassment, the impact has a cascading effect. First, there is productivity loss from the absent individual, followed by the impact on other employees who may have to cover for an unexpected absence. If this becomes a pattern, it further impacts morale and productivity.

Turnover increase. If your business doesn’t address harassment, you run the risk of losing valuable employees – both the victims of harassment and those who don’t want to work in an environment where management doesn’t confront issues immediately or, worse, protects a harasser.

Reputation damage. Lawsuits are on the rise as more and more people step forward with their harassment stories. Even if you can survive the cost of defending your business, being associated with a harassment lawsuit can irreparably damage your reputation.

Financial strain. When sexual harassment lawsuits are filed, the legal costs can impact both the individual who perpetrated the offense (loss of job and career self-sabotage) as well as the business – especially if it’s determined it did little or nothing to discourage harassment or address an issue once it was presented.

Having a written policy defining your position on harassment and the repercussions for those who violate your rules is critically important. Make sure all employees read, understand and sign your policy document to protect your business should problems arise down the road.

Are You Cultivating a Culture of Fear or Comfort?

As an employer, one of the best statements you can make to your employees is that you take your responsibility very seriously to create safe working conditions where no form of harassment is tolerated. Create a culture of caring about employee well-being and you have a much better chance of attracting quality employees and keeping them longer.

Your goal is to get everyone in your organization to understand what harassment is, why it’s not tolerated and what the consequences are for those who don’t follow the rules. Only then will you create the safe environment employees desire and deserve.

Educating employees and managers is a critical first step in eliminating undesirable behavior. The Harassment Training Smart App is an ideal resource to help small businesses inform staff about typical workplace harassment concerns. The app allows managers to provide in-person training so they can host discussions about harassment or they can assign training modules to employees to complete individually.

Key Takeaways
  • Harassment claims are on the rise fueled by #MeToo and #TimesUp
  • Ignoring the existence of harassment in the workplace won’t make it go away.
  • Not addressing harassment in the workplace can impact your bottom line.
  • Your #1 responsibility is to create a safe work environment for employees.
  • Having a harassment policy and providing training helps curb harassment.