Sexual harassment is not just a little locker-room talk, a compliment, “innocent” flirting, or an invitation to share a cup of coffee. Workplace harassment is a discriminatory pattern of behavior that creates a hostile work environment based on a protected class. It may involve verbal abuse, an abuse of power, sexual quid pro quo, and assault such as unwanted groping.
Harassment in the workplace has negative effects on all workers, including decreased performance, low morale, and increased turnover.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates several federal and state laws. Sexual harassment is persistent, unwanted sexual advances, verbal abuse, and/or demands for sexual favors. Behavior becomes illegal when enduring the harassment is a condition of continued employment and creates an environment that is hostile or intimidating.
If an employer has more than a handful of employees, it’s likely harassment will be a problem. There were 12,860 charges filed with the EEOC alleging sex-based harassment in 2016. One in three women face harassment in the workplace yet 70 percent of women say they have never reported it.
Effects of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment can affect everyone because it creates an environment that makes it harder for employees to succeed. The possible effects of sexual harassment in the workplace include:
Emotional and Physical Issues
Victims of sexual harassment often suffer emotional and psychological harm, including stress, depression, and anxiety. They often experience decreased confidence and self-esteem. Physical health problems may arise such as loss of sleep and appetite, weight fluctuations, nausea, and headaches.
Professional and Financial Problems
Sexual harassment can also wreak havoc on a victim’s job performance and career trajectory. Fear and decreased confidence can cause some people to withdraw from the workplace and disengage from co-workers. They are more likely to be tardy, absent, distracted, and neglect duties.
If victims of sexual harassment report the harassment, they may suffer advancement setbacks such as being passed over for promotions, being left out of keys meetings, retaliation, and being labeled a troublemaker. Financial problems like lost wages and unpaid leave are also possible.
Decreased Company Productivity
Sexual harassment is also damaging to an organization. When a workplace is infected with discrimination and harassment, everyone suffers. The hostility created by harassment causes absenteeism, low morale, gossip, animosity, stress, and anxiety among staff. Low productivity is more common in environments with high rates of sexual harassment.
Victims and witnesses of sexual harassments are more likely to quit, leading to high employee turnover and related hiring and training cost increases. A toxic environment will also make recruiting top talent more difficult.
Lawsuits and Reputation
A company’s failure to adequately prevent and handle sexual harassment can result in expensive lawsuits. In the past decade, we have seen some eye-popping jury awards in sexual harassment cases. A jury awarded plaintiffs $17.4 million in a case filed by the EEOC involving rape and sexual harassment by three male supervisors at a Florida packing plant. And $18 million was awarded in a case against a New York Global Group CEO for retaliation against his former employee after she refused his advances.
A highly publicized case of sexual harassment can also damage a company’s reputation, resulting lost business.
Anti-Harassment Policy and Training
Employers must institute anti-harassment programs that contribute to a welcoming culture where everyone feels they are valuable team members and also attract talented job applicants.
A company harassment policy should:
- Define harassment and give examples.
- State that harassment is not tolerated.
- Explain the harassment reporting system with a designated HR person for reporting claims.
- Communicate the disciplinary consequences of harassment.
- Outline the investigation and remediation process.
- State that retaliation against employees reporting harassment is prohibited.
Employers must hold employees, and themselves, to high standards. Everyone deserves a workplace free from harmful harassment, and all employees should be expected to behave like professional adults while on the job. Not only could workplace harassment lead to expensive lawsuits, it creates a toxic culture that cripples team cohesion and harms productivity.