Harassment and Your Workplace: How to Avoid the Costs

It’s a common scenario: Margaret is uncomfortable working with her new supervisor, who makes demeaning comments about women. She doesn’t trust him enough to confront him directly. The company has an anti-harassment program but she fears that filing a formal complaint would anger her supervisor. She could talk to HR or the unit manager, but she knows they represent the company, not the employees. She decides to endure the discomfort, turning to coworkers for emotional support. Over time, the unit’s culture erodes and employees disengage. Margaret dreads work and takes more and more time off. She eventually finds another job. The supervisor continues his behavior and the unit becomes increasingly less productive and profitable.

I’ve seen this scenario many times. It might be happening in your workplace right now and you might…or might not…know it.
If you are like many people, you are unsure what constitutes workplace harassment. The Harvey Weinstein variety of sexual harassment is only the tip of the iceberg - just one type of workplace harassment. 

What exactly is Workplace Harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment is a form of employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

It becomes unlawful when enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. (Read the full definition and employer liability here.)

Don’t be fooled into thinking that sexual harassment is the only problem. The EEOC reported that 55% of harassment complaints in 2015 addressed other categories. Not only that, most incidents of sexual harassment do not involve unwanted sexual attention or coercion, but rather ‘gender harassment’ – sexist efforts to insult or reject women (or men).
As often as we hear about cases of unwanted sexual attention or coercion, they represent less than 23% of all workplace harassment. We know less about the other types because the press, academic research, and online articles emphasize the 23%.

So how big IS the problem?

 Well….it’s huge.
Nearly 30,000 complaints filed with the EEOC in 2015 included a harassment allegation. In a study released in 2016, they concluded that up to 85% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. However, up to 75% of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported.here
Why don’t victims report workplace harassment?
Remember Margaret’s dilemma about whether to report her supervisor? She has good reason to be concerned. 75% of employees who speak out against workplace mistreatment face some form of retaliation.here Employees rightly fear being disbelieved, blamed, humiliated or ostracized, that no action will be taken, and that their career and reputation will be damaged.
All too often, victims suffer in silence unless they can join a group of victims. This explains the momentum around the Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nasser allegations, and the ensuing number of women who have found the courage to speak up about past harassment.
But most workplace harassment victims won’t speak up.

The Cost is Massive

Whether victims suffer in silence or file claims or lawsuits, the cost to employers is enormous.

If you are a US employer, your chances of having an employment charge filed against you is over 10%. (If you live in one of 7 states, your likelihood is 19% to 55%).here From 2010 through 2017, private employers paid out $949.7 million to employees who filed charges with the EEOC alleging harassment.here Federal government agency costs are likely comparable.here
Employment disputes for small and mid-size companies result in an average defense and settlement cost of $160,000 and take 318 days on average to resolve. The average employer’s self-insured retention deductible for these charges is $50,000. Without EPLI, companies are out of pocket an extra $110,000 on average. Even claims that do not result in payouts involve a loss of precious time, energy, and resources invested in the average 275 days required to defend them.here
Unreported incidents are costly, too, affecting turnover, absenteeism, employee engagement, productivity, profitability, employee healthcare costs, recruitment, management time, corporate reputation, and innovation. 
Not to mention the most devastating costs...those borne by the victims themselves.

What's the Solution?

Advice to companies is everywhere. Most focuses on prevention and liability reduction. Much of the advice is very good and falls into four categories: Organizational Culture, Workplace Monitoring, Systems/Processes/Procedures, and Training/Reinforcement. 

But Something’s Still Missing

Let’s consider Margaret. The best holistic anti-harassment program only has teeth if the victim takes action. Unfortunately, victims can never be certain that an informal conversation with a supervisor or a formal complaint won’t be met with retaliation, blame, and damage to reputation and career.

No matter how strong the message from leadership, how frequent the training, and how clear the policies, the perceived risk of being undermined in subtle and deniable ways is too great for many employees. Like Margaret, they choose the discomfort of enduring the harassment or finding another job.
Organizations serious about creating a harassment-free workplace must consider including a fully neutral and confidential resource. Employees should have one place where they can explore their options without risk.
The organizational ombudsman role was created to fill this need and is recognized as a best practice in effective and sustainable organizations. The organizational ombudsman serves as a neutral, informal resolution channel, complimenting complaint hotlines and formal reporting processes.

Employees are more likely to discuss harassment and other workplace issues when they have confidence that those conversations are entirely private. They are also more likely to formally report the incident or attempt to resolve it informally.
As an added bonus, the organizational ombudsman is a conflict resolution expert. If asked by the employee and if appropriate, the ombuds can formally or informally mediate a conversation between the victim and the harasser. These sessions frequently result in a resolution that protects the employee, saves face and corrects the harasser, and helps the company avoid the many costs of formal processes or silent suffering.