7 signs you have a sexual harassment problem

Do you have a Harvey Weinstein-style sexual harassment problem brewing right in front of you? Would you know?

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Bossing after #MeToo

If you manage a team in the age of #MeToo, you have a job to do that’s thornier than hitting deadlines and worrying if people are wasting time on Slack and Reddit. And if you're not proactively ferreting it out, it’s probably happening right under your nose.

Sexual harassment happens where it is tolerated. It thrives where managers fail to prevent it. It is hard to spot, easy to ignore, and very bad for your shop. It eats away at your company’s culture, creating problems that quickly spiral out of control. If you ignore it, which is easy to do if you aren’t diligent, it’s a problem that can land you—and your company—in legal trouble. 

Here are seven signs you have a sexual harassment problem and what to do about it.

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You can't define it

You can’t spot what you can’t identify. So, if you think harassment looks only like a creepy guy blatantly hitting on that stone fox for unwanted (obviously!) sex, you are sure to miss it.

According to a recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, there are three categories of sexually harassing behavior: Gender harassment is verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or a second-class status to members of one gender. Unwanted sexual attention is verbal or physical unwelcome sexual advances. (Attractiveness is not a factor in this. ‘Unwanted’ is the key point here.) Sexual coercion is when advancement or other opportunities are conditioned on sexual activity.

Harassment is ‘direct’ when it is targeted at an individual. It can also be ‘ambient’ when there is a general level of sexual harassment in the environment.

So, if the men on your team brag about their sexual conquests, assume the women will make the coffee, post half-naked photos of women on the walls, or go to Hooters for department meetings, you have a problem. If you tolerate that sort of thing, you are encouraging an environment that is highly tolerant of harassment.  A tolerant environment breeds all manner of trouble.

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It isn't reported

Would you know if the women on your team were being harassed? Probably not.

At least one in four women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “That number can be as high as 85 percent.”

But most of them do not report it. “Common workplace-based responses … are to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure the behavior,” says the same report. “The least common action was to report the harassment.”

Eventually she will be driven out of her job, though. And at that point, she might also seek legal recourse. “By then, says Dave Wilson, a labor and employment lawyer. “The toothpaste is way out of the tube. That person is damaged.” And you have broken the law.

The #MeToo movement gave many women the courage to come forward. But if your company has a history of not listening, the women on your team may keep quiet, fearing retribution. You’ll have to ask if everything is okay, announce that management does not tolerate harassment, and issue clear guidelines to change that perception.

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You can't see it

If you’re a man, you can’t see harassment. It happens out of your view. If might look like flattery or friendly attention because you don’t have experience being harassed. If you are in a position of power, you might even be misreading a woman’s reticence to tell you off as interest.

“The research shows that men are the least likely to understand when they are harassing a woman because they have no point of reference,” Says Morgan Mercer, CEO of Vantage Point, a virtual reality sexual harassment training company.

Wilson offers an example: A CIO hired a female manager to run his help desk. She started there in August. In November, she quit and filed suit. “Everyone on the help desk thought she and the CIO were pals,” he says. That’s not what it looked like from her point of view. She had lots of text messages that proved he was harassing her.

This perceptive mismatch is why you need a clear company policy about harassment.  If there is a question about someone’s behavior, you can refer to that policy. “You didn’t go to law school,” councils Wilson. “You don’t have to define harassment. You only have to say if it is within the bounds of your company policy.”

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Your culture tolerates it

Did you follow the tech sex scandals last year? Maybe you saw one clear thread that ran through them.

The harassment all happened in an atmosphere that tolerated it. “The most potent predictor of sexual harassment,” says the report from the Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Is the degree to which those in the organization perceive that sexual harassment is or is not tolerated.”

This means that—if you’re in a position of power— you can create an atmosphere that does not tolerate it. But that’s harder than simply stating a policy. You have to demonstrate you take that policy seriously and make concrete, systemwide changes. Harassment drives women out of the company—even out of their careers. And it’s illegal.

Your company, and you personally, could be legally liable if she is harassed and you could have stopped it. “When it comes to the law,” explains Wilson. “If I am the CIO of my department, I have a duty to do something if I knew — or should have known — about it.”

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The line is blurred

Is there someone on your staff who seems very friendly? Maybe he is full of compliments or seems to have an easy, jovial way with women? He’s the guy who has no problem saying, “Wow, those pants look amazing on you!” People who do corporate training on sexual harassment call this ‘grooming.’ It is designed to blur the line between the professional and the personal. Eventually, it escalates to touching or more explicit sexual comments. 

“Harassment happens in landscapes that have a culture that makes it pervasive,” explains Mercer. “But a lot of times this can be pervasive innocence. Grooming, for example, starts out by asking women very personal questions to lower her guard over a period time. After a few months of grooming, the actual harassment happens.”

If you are a manager, you might not spot the grooming, even if it happens in front of you unless you are hyper aware. Pay attention to this. It may seem friendly now, but it often leads to a hostile work environment for the women.

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Bystanders don't get involved

You know the guy. He needs to get a laugh in every meeting. Maybe he’s even funny sometimes. But he has trouble with the line between hilarious and harassment. His off-brand of humor might work in a comedy club but people in comedy clubs are free to leave. The woman he’s insulting can’t leave without giving up her income. This sort of harassment is highly dependent on a group of bystanders who allow it to continue. So, to stop it, turn to the bystanders.

“It is, often, the bystander who does the most damage,” explains Wilson, “In depositions, women often say the insults were not the most hurtful part. The real pain was caused by the people in the room, those she thought were her friends, who did nothing.”

When you laugh, you encourage him and hurt her. “It’s hard for bystanders,” says Dave Wilson. “Our natural reaction is to not get involved.” You don’t have to start a brawl, though. “You don’t want raise the confrontation level,” says Wilson. You can just turn to her and say something sympathetic such as, “Let me apologize for him. That crossed a line.”

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Your employees don't believe you

If you are confident that everyone on your team is a gentleman and the women are safe and treated like equals, you may be promoting harassment through neglect. “Harassment happens in places where the employees don't sense that the company takes harassment seriously,” says Mercer.

Even if you have a policy against harassment and have shared it with the staff, it is only effective if the employees believe you will enforce it. Having the policy, believing in it, and being willing to do something about it if someone comes forward is not enough.

“The research shows, that to measure a company’s level of tolerance for harassment, you need to measure how many of the employees in the organization actually believe your company is tolerant of harassment, says Mercer. “That reporting needs to come from the women in the organization, not the men.”

If a woman does report something, don’t bungle it. “A lot of men mess up here because they want to immediately solve the problem,” says Wilson. Minimizing it, telling her ‘that guy does that to everyone,’ or trying to talk her out of her interpretation is bungling it. Take her seriously, mediate, investigate, act on what you find.