Most organizations these days have sexual harassment policies that they vow will be enforced with no retaliation for victims. That's the right thing to say, and hopefully do.
But it's a big challenge for employers committed to doing the right thing to win the trust of women, considering a long history of indifference, hypocrisy and retaliation concerning sexual harassment in the workplace.
The recent wave of high-profile sexual misconduct accusations has put a spotlight on the prevalence of harassment, but it shouldn't really be a surprise. Depending on how you word the question, surveys have routinely shown anywhere from one in four to three out of four women have experienced sexual harassment on the job.
The abuse can range from unwanted physical comments and romantic overtures to groping and worse. But the vast majority of victims don't complain or take legal action.
"Most people are still afraid of retaliation and that fear is well founded," said Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Over half of individuals who say they have reported sexual harassment have also reported that they've experienced retaliation when they reported."
Feldblum said the best way for an organization to get a read on workplace sexual harassment — and the fears people may have about reporting it — is to survey employees and let them respond anonymously.
Sexual harassment policies and employee confidence in them is a sensitive subject right now, especially as more women speak up about their experiences, everywhere from Fox News and National Public Radio to the U.S. Congress and the Minnesota Legislature.
St. Paul-based human resources consultant Fran Sepler has conducted more than 1,000 workplace investigations on behalf of employers. She said to overcome the reluctance of victims to report, it's critical that employees see organizations practice what they preach.
"The policy is far less important than the message people are getting from their leaders and from the day-to-day culture that surrounds them," she said.
Sepler said employers must show that investigations will be done in an independent and neutral manner, protecting whistleblowers and holding everyone, including executives, accountable. She said word gets around fast if the higher-ups are treated differently. But that double-standard seems to be eroding.
"I think we still have an economically-driven reluctance to hold high performers, superstars accountable," she said. "But I've been involved in cases in the last several years where very high rollers in professional firms have been told 'time to retire,' when I don't think 20 years ago that ever would have happened."
That means the HR and legal departments need to be ready to bring in independent investigators when necessary to maintain credibility.
St. Paul attorney Therese Pautz has been providing such investigations for nearly 30 years.
"The higher the level the people, the complexity. For a variety of reasons, they may go outside," she said.
More companies recognize workplace sexual harassment as a serious legal and financial liability and threat to their reputations. And Pautz, too, said higher-ups are being held accountable.
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"Within the last five years, I have seen companies take out higher-level employees," she said.
In part, Pautz said, that can be because employees are more likely these days to have damning digital evidence: text messages, e-mails, smartphone recordings.
Still, unless an employee has a slam-dunk case, business consultant Cynthia Shapiro said, a company will usually defend its executives despite their transgressions.
Shapiro is a former human resources executive and author of a tell-all book, "Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You To Know — And What To Do About Them." Her advice: Get a lawyer or other advocate.
"So many people more often than not are hurt by coming forward, rather than be protected," she said. "You have to know what kind of HR department you really have. You don't want to listen to what they say. You got to look at what they do."
That often depends on who's running things. Stefanie Johnson is an associate business professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She said putting women in charge of companies can make a real difference
"I think an antidote to sexual harassment is to have more women in leadership positions," she said. "They would see the sexual harassment happening. They'd be aware of it because most women have experienced it. And they'd be more likely to put a stop to it."
But among the Fortune 500 companies, for instance, only 6 percent of CEOs are women.
Johnson is optimistic things will get better. She believes more organizations are deciding it's less costly and damaging to address sexual harassment, and assault, than ignore it. And more women are speaking up, using social media to amplify their voices and hold more and more people and companies accountable.
"Never have people been able to have such a powerful voice," she said. "When people go looking for companies to work for, do they want to work for a company that has tons of negative press and negative social media about sexual harassment? No. They don't. So, I feel optimistic that maybe this is a turning point."