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Three ways your company can promote a safe environment for employees who experience harassment to come forward

A 2020 survey released by Women Who Tech found that nearly 50% of women founders and women working in tech have experienced harassment — a statistic that has barely budged since 2017.  When asked what kind of sexual harassment, 65% of women founders said they were propositioned for sex. In addition, 59% of women experienced unwanted physical contact, 56% of women had sexual slurs directed at them, 32% of women were groped, and 24% of women were sent graphic photos.

Harassment in any industry has negative outcomes for all. Organisations that downplay harassment are hit financially, especially when there is any negative media coverage (through leadership and employee turnover, reduced productivity, walkouts and boycotts). Secondly, they risk their reputation, making it difficult to attract and retain talent and customers. Those who have experienced it have greater workplace withdrawal and a reduced state of health. Their trauma can be further compounded when workplaces ignore the problem too.

The #MeToo movement disrupted many people’s denial about the widespread nature of sexual harassment and sexual assault in corporate America. The challenge for companies now is to shift their awareness into action. Here are three ways your company can promote a safe environment for employees who experience harassment to come forward:

Have an unbiased reporting process

The HR department (or equivalent) is the go-to place to report harassment incidents. “But if HR is protecting the company and the C-suite, who is protecting the employees?” Justyn Hintze asks. Employees can be deterred from reporting harassment incidents internally because there is the chance that either they will face negative repercussions for reporting their experience or the harasser may face no repercussions at all. To encourage employees to not feel deterred in coming forward with their harassment experiences, companies should strongly consider including more than one way to report sexual harassment allegations. Introducing an unbiased external organisation to report incidents too can offer employees some assurance that their experiences will be taken seriously and treated with confidentiality.

Show leadership through 0% tolerance

Leadership is key to setting a harassment-free tone for the workplace. Research suggests that when leaders take sexual harassment seriously, so do employees. Top-level allies should speak out against harassment. “Hold your peers accountable. While you might have the value, make sure you’re upholding those values in the workplace. And with the people around you ask the hard questions. Call people out when they are being sexist [or] when they’re being racist…”, Hintze suggests. “While it might be hard, have some confidence and do the right thing.”. The actions that leaders take are important because they are symbolic and they send clear messages to employees. Leaders should learn how they can signal their confidence in female leadership, celebrate their accomplishments, and demonstrate their respect for women.

Emphasise prevention and early intervention 

To create and nurture physical and psychologically safe environments, reframe harassment as an issue of workplace health and safety instead of as an individual grievance. Although harassment is not traditionally connected to health and safety, it is well established that harassment can have long-term psychological, emotional, physical and mental effects on those affected. By viewing harassment as a systemic organisational issue, leaders can treat it with the same vigour as other workplace harms and hazards because they have the due-diligence obligations to consider the resources, policies, processes and risks associated. This also demonstrates that leadership views the prevention of and early intervention in harassment moments as critical accountabilities.

Learn more here:

The Fix Podcast: Justyn Hintze: Surviving a Hostile Work Environment

Lexology: The Global Impact of #MeToo Movement

Champions of Change Coalition: Disrupting the System