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How to Stop Sexual Harassment Once & For All -- Awareness to Action

December 11, 2019
By Jerrin Padre
Awareness Action_header

Destigmatizing the Conversation

Thanks to viral campaigns, trending hashtags, and persistent press coverage, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has been put in the hot seat the past couple years. Organizations are stepping up to the plate— publicly addressing the issue head on in an effort to encourage others to do the same. From global walkouts protesting current policy (or lack-thereof) to company-wide shut downs for proper harassment training, the resounding message of employees is loud and clear: We want change.

But, as we know, change takes time, especially for behavior-based issues such as sexual harassment. This is precisely why it is and has been such a pervasive plague within workplace corporate culture. Eradicating sexual harassment from the workplace requires a thorough understanding of where we are now and where we need to be, as well as copious amounts of exposure and practice. Let’s start with where we are now.

Where We Are Today  Awareness Action_metoo

Defining Sexual Harassment 
Sexual harassment is illegal sexual conduct in the workplace. It is a form of sexual discrimination and defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as, "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." States and local municipalities have expanded protections that include offensive comments regarding someone's sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, transgender status, pregnancy, childcare, and related medical conditions.

The 4 Types of Sexual Harassment    

  • Quid Pro Quo – A person in authority requests a “this for that” trade of sex or sexual favors. Submission or rejection has direct or implied job consequences.
  • Hostile Work Environment – A pattern of unwelcome behaviors based on sex or gender that is so pervasive or offensive it interferes with the employee’s ability to work.
  • Third Party – As a “this for that” trade, a manager requests that an employee date or provide sexual favors to a third party like a vendor or client. Or, the unwelcome conduct comes from a person outside of the organization, like a delivery person, customer, patient, or vendor.
  • Bystander – An employee experiences a negative job impact due to a sexual relationship between a manager and a co-worker. The employee isn’t the target of the behavior but exposure is still offensive if it interferes with the employee’s ability to work.

Updated Statistics

         In FY 2018
  • The EEOC filed 66 harassment lawsuits, 41 of which were sexual harassment allegations. This reflects more than a 50% increase in lawsuits challenging sexual harassment over the FY 2017.
  • Charges filed with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment increased by 13.6% from 2017.
  • For charges alleging harassment, reasonable cause findings increased by 23.6%.
  • The EEOC recovered nearly $70 million for sexual harassment victims through litigation and administrative enforcement (up from $47.5 million in FY 2017).
  • Hits on the EEOC’s website more than doubled, as many individuals and employers sought information to deal with workplace harassment.

Roadblocks to Preventing Sexual Harassment

The next step towards ending sexual harassment involves identifying current roadblocks: What’s getting in the way of solving the issue of sexual harassment and how do we address it?

Awareness Action_fearRoadblock #1: Fear

Even after #metoo, a majority of sexual harassment cases still go unreported as victims and witnesses fear they will face retaliation should they speak up.

Victims Fear Retaliation    

It was found that the #1 reason victims don’t take action when they’ve been sexually harassed is because they fear they’ll lose their job or their income/tips. Other reasons include worrying:

  • no one will believe them
  • nothing will happen if they do file a report
  • they’ll be blamed
  • they’ll face social retaliation (humiliation and ostracism)
  • they’ll face professional retaliation (damage to career and/or reputation)
Bystanders Fear Responsibility

A bystander is someone who witnesses another person being sexually harassed, knows it’s wrong, yet does not take action. In addition to fear of retaliation, a bystander’s lack of initiative may spur from two other reasons:

  1. diffusion of responsibility (assuming someone else observing the situation will take action)
  2. lack of social influence (believing that, since no one else who observed has done anything, perhaps intervening isn’t the correct behavior)

Awareness Action_policyRoadblock #2: Poor Policy

Until recent years, many companies still adhered to sexual harassment policies written in the 1980’s. While states like New York, California, Connecticut and a few others now mandate stringent training requirements, most states continue to leave decisions concerning sexual harassment in the hands of employers. Of course, this only exacerbates the inconsistency, as beliefs about what constitutes sexual harassment vary from person to person. Despite a unifying theme of “zero-tolerance,” without state or federal policies to guide them, many organizations fail to define what behaviors are prohibited and how sexual harassment prevention rules will be enforced. Finally, there’s the issue of ineffective company policy around handling sexual harassment complaints. Confusing filing processes and other bureaucratic hoops can lead to employees feeling like they’d rather endure or ignore the harassing behavior than go through the grueling process and paperwork of filing an official claim.

Awareness Action_costRoadblock #3: Costs & Logistics

While there’s been a lot of progress in recent years addressing “zero-tolerance” at all levels, leadership is still faced with a quandary: Taking all employees, including senior level and above, off the job for 1-2 hours of training (in some states, every year) poses a huge cost and logistical issue to the company. That being said, culture change starts at the top; so the question for today’s leaders becomes: how do we make sure our training is effective and impactful enough to make up for this opportunity cost? Additionally, the cost of NOT training employees can lead to millions of dollars in legal expenses, higher employee turnover, increased absences, decreased engagement, and reduced overall productivity.

Awareness Action_trainingRoadblock #4: Sexual Harassment Training Doesn’t Change Behavior

It’s no wonder sexual harassment training has yielded a bad rap—it hasn’t been effective (for the most part). Most training programs in circulation do nothing to engage employees or push for behavior change. Instead, the focus is on minimizing legal implications and making sure companies don’t get sued for failing to deploy sexual harassment training. Below are the most common reasons employees “tune out:”

  • Videos tend to be boring and full of legalese
  • Examples are dated, cheesy, or unrelatable
  • Instruction isn’t practical or easy to apply

Additionally, once training is deployed, there is often little to no follow-up and no link to the greater mission of building a workplace where everyone feels safe and respected.

Awareness Action_resistanceRoadblock #5: Employee Resistance to Training

A Media Partners survey of nearly 150 customers found that the #1 challenge faced with Sexual Harassment Training was “Employees don’t want to take the training.” In addition to the reasons already listed, employee resistance may also have something to do with their current outlook on the issue. Perhaps it’s the fact that the topic of sexual harassment still holds a social taboo, or that employees have a cynical outlook on whether or not anything will actually change. In either case, it’s imperative organizations work to change the perception around sexual harassment prevention training so it’s seen, not as the company’s way of “paying lip service” to the issue, but as an ongoing, top-down organizational commitment to ending inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment in all its forms. Additionally, organizations should strive to instill confidence within employees that the right steps will be taken should sexual harassment prevent itself. 

Where We Need to Go  

Awareness Action_circles

In order to address the roadblocks listed above, we need to attack three different areas:

   • the employee level
   • the managerial level
   • the organizational level


You often hear the phrase “it takes a village” in the context of raising children. However, the same philosophy can be applied to successfully running a company. Employees are the bedrock of your organization—they drive progress, embody company culture, and keep the cogs on the wheels of productivity turning. So when it comes to driving successful change initiatives, employee buy-in is essential. Without it, the organization is fighting a losing battle. SH post_harassment free zone

Below are a few things employees can do to support their organization’s sexual harassment prevention initiatives. Have managers share this this list with their employees!

Awareness Action_flip perspFlip Your Perspective on Sexual Harassment Training

Instead of adopting a negative attitude around ineffective sexual harassment training of the past, look at it for what it is today: an opportunity to be part of real change within your organization. A positive outlook on any initiative is integral in true culture change.

Awareness Action_steer clearSteer Clear of Inappropriate Behaviors

Filter your words, keep your hands to yourself, and treat others how you’d like to be treated. Bottom line: if there’s any doubt that you should be doing it, don’t.

Awareness Action_speak upSpeak Up: Be an Upstander

Here’s the golden rule for being an upstander: “If you see something, say something.” When you witness someone being harassed, don’t ignore it— provide moral support! Direct them to a manager or HR if they don’t know what to do. If the person seems frazzled or afraid, reassure them with a gentle reminder that the perpetrator’s behavior is NOT okay. Being an upstander empowers others around you to do the same.

Awareness Action_practice zero tolPractice Zero-Tolerance

Practicing zero-tolerance means that all forms of inappropriate behavior, especially those that are sexual in nature, will not be tolerated in the workplace. These include anything from sexual innuendos to risqué jokes – even those intended for humor, not harm. However, when you witness these kinds of behaviors, it’s important to step in. Issue a sincere reminder that work is not the time or place for those topics. Doing so sets the standard for those around you, and takes the blanket-statement of “zero-tolerance” and turns it into tangible action.


Employees look to leadership to set an example, yet, year after year, a majority of sexual harassment charges are filed against these senior positions. It was recently reported that in white collar jobs, 72% of women who reported being harassed, were harassed by someone more senior in their careers. Even worse, many organizations either have no plan or do the bare-minimum when it comes to providing sexual harassment prevention training for managers.    

In order to successfully make progress toward eradicating sexual harassment from the workplace, managers must be willing to put in the work. Doing so takes a degree of humility, a dash of self-awareness, and a whole lot of patience (especially when trying to change ingrained behaviors and thought patterns). However, the payoff is the unyielding support of the people as they follow suit. Here are a few things managers can do to lead successful sexual harassment prevention initiatives. Distribute this list to all managers and leadership positions within your organization!

Awareness Action_lead by exLead by Example

In the context of sexual harassment prevention, leading by example is much more than practicing what you preach. It’s about taking actionable measures towards a culture of prevention. Think of a teacher – the best ones spend time outside of class studying the curriculum, planning their lessons, and making sure they have enough resources to help their students. When faced with disruptive behavior, the most respectable teachers will unemotionally excuse the student from the room or situation, thereby enforcing that inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated in the classroom. This combination of personal preparation and discipline ensures both their success as a teacher and the success of their pupils.

As a manager, your success is your team’s success. Therefore, leadership must put in the work to foster a working environment that sets their people up to succeed. Below are a few examples of what that environment may look like:   

  • A constant awareness of certain behavioral patterns that OFA Manager_male mgr 2could develop into illegal conduct (more on this later). 
  • Not tolerating inappropriate conversations or behaviors.
  • Building a sense of trust between management and employees.
  • Being willing to delve into issues and situations that may be uncomfortable
  • Emphasizing the importance of sexual harassment prevention training

For Example: If an employee jokingly makes an offensive comment during a meeting, shut it down immediately by saying something like; “Hey – I know you’re joking, but that might make some folks uncomfortable, so let’s not joke like that at work.”

Awareness Action_inspire upstanderInspire an Environment of Upstanders

As we learned earlier, victims and witnesses of sexual harassment who fail to speak up, do so out of fear that their supervisors may retaliate. Mangers must therefore go the extra mile to ensure their people feel comfortable coming to them in times of crises. To empower employees to speak up:

  • Destigmatize the conversation around sexual harassment – doing so demonstrates that your employees can feel safe coming to you.
  • Raise awareness with mandatory employee training to keep the issue top of mind.
  • Make yourself available to employees so they feel comfortable coming to you, should an issue arise.
Awareness Action_stop innapropStop Inappropriate Conduct Before It Becomes Illegal

Sometimes people don’t realize their actions negatively impact others. For this reason, it’s crucial managers learn basic behavioral guidelines that will help them identify commonly misconstrued behavior patterns. The ability to recognize these patterns allows managers to put a stop to the first signs of harassing behavior before it becomes full-blown illegal conduct. Here are a few examples of behaviors that managers should pay attention to:

  • An employee voices that a co-worker consistently jokes about taking her on a date.
  • An employee consistently has “a little too much to drink” at team happy hours and spews out comments that make the whole team cringe.
  • An employee keeps giving unsolicited parenting tips to a pregnant coworker.
Awareness Action_reportsTake all reports seriously

Sexual harassment is a complicated issue. A manager’s job is to ensure every report brought to their attention is given thorough and proper consideration. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Make your employees feel heard by taking the time to hear them out. Provide a safe space by listening to their entire story, beginning to end.
  • Don’t judge. Instead, managers should clarify their understanding of the employee’s story by asking follow-up questions, and then immediately report their findings to their manager and/or HR.
  • Know the protocol for handling a sexual harassment complaint and follow it.
  • Protect from retaliation anyone who files a complaint (this includes upstanders or anyone who cooperates in an investigation).


Everyone deserves to work in an environment where they feel safe, respected,Awareness Action_short long term and engaged. Below are specific actions organizations can take to sustain a culture of respect and accountability. Share this list with your leadership, HR, Learning & Development, and Compliance departments.

Awareness Action_train curr mgrTrain Current Managers

Whether you’re dealing with clueless managers who don’t realize their behavior is perceived negatively or those who are ill-equipped when faced with sexual harassment claims, effective training can help get everyone on the same page. Here are two must-haves for your next training program:

  • Equip managers with a game plan detailing what exactly to do when they see, experience, or hear about sexual harassment.
  • Gives managers proper instructions on the Do’s and Don’ts of handling a sexual harassment complaint.
Awareness Action_zero tolDemonstrate Zero-tolerance

While some may be ignorant to the effect their actions have on others, many harassers know exactly what they’re doing. It’s in these cases where organizations have an opportunity to set an example. Here are a couple ways of doing so:

  • Shut down habitual harassers – Let these individuals know that, should their behavior continue, they will not survive at the organization.
  • Don’t reward bad behavior – Refrain from promoting or holding onto employees who have a track record of negative behavior patterns. Disrespect, inappropriate conduct, and sexual harassment should never be tolerated just because someone is a high performer.
Awareness Action_train new mgrTrain the Next Generation of Managers

Some leaders are born, some leaders are made, but the best leaders are (you guessed it) trained. In order to eradicate pervasive issues such as sexual harassment once and for all, organizations can’t rely on current managers alone… They need to think one step ahead!

Invest in the future of the organization by training people at all levels—from entry level to executives. Companies may even consider a program for freelancers, contract workers, or temporary agencies who frequently interact with others in the workplace. By being proactive about introducing sexual harassment prevention early on, organizations can exponentially increase the probability of nipping sexual harassment in the bud.

Awareness Action_org follow upFollow Up on Company-Wide Training Initiatives

Organizations must veer away from check-the-box training and commit to programs that are effective, impactful, and focused on behavior change. Most importantly, companies must institute consistent follow up after completion. Doing so keeps people accountable, thereby forcing the changes to stick.

Change is Possible

Awareness Action_Change imageBy addressing sexual harassment at the employee, managerial, and organization levels, the opportunity for change is boundless.

Yet it’s important to keep in mind that, through each step of the journey, change is a collective effort requiring all hands on deck. Hopefully, utilizing some of these tools will move you one step closer to a lasting culture of respect. 

Preview our best-selling and multi-award winning Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment program in any of the versions available:

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(Connecticut, Illinois, Canada, Europe/International versions coming soon)