Illustration: Sexual harassment
© Cat ONeil

As stories of sexual harassment came to light in industries from Hollywood to hospitality, Vicki Magley, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, began to receive calls from employers wanting to overhaul workplace culture.

These inquiries indicate that a shift is getting under way, says Prof Magley, who has widely researched harassment. More workplaces are genuinely concerned with protecting staff.

“There was interest in how we move the needle on sexual harassment: what are we missing? And how do we really effect change?” she says. “That is different from previous liability-focused queries. The question used to be how we protect ourselves.”

Technology is being enlisted too. Apps such as StopIt and a website, AllVoices, allow employees to report harassment anonymously and help the identification of serial offenders.

The harassment training industry — spotting it and not tolerating it — has grown over the past 20 years, says Prof Magley, but many programmes have tended to be superficial, demonstrating scenarios with actors in videos and using multiple choice questionnaires. The priority for companies has not been to create safe working environments but to guard against lawsuits.

In truth, she says, there is no clear template yet for what harassment training should comprise: “We don’t know how to go about this in the right way. There really are not best practices established in this.” With developments such as the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns still emerging, she says: “It will be interesting in five years to look back. This is pretty uncharted territory.”

It is not possible to study sexual harassment in the artificial setting of a lab, with undergraduates who are not in real work groups or in real organisational structures, she says. A paper published late last year in Group and Organisation Management journal, pointed out that sexual harassment training is outside typical career-related rewards.

A 2016 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the US federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, looked at the limited empirical data on anti-harassment training, which it concluded may be “mildly positive, often is neutral, and in some circumstances actually may be counterproductive”. Victims of harassment who have received training may be more likely to file a complaint if other factors, such as clear policies and leaders who show they will not tolerate misconduct, are present.

One of the biggest problems in sexual harassment training, says Prof Magley, is employee cynicism. If the values espoused in training are not reflected in the wider organisation or by senior management, it smacks of lip-service or outright hypocrisy. Some studies have shown that men who have undergone training are less likely to report sexual harassment by others and more likely to blame the victim.

The two predictors of sexual harassment of women in a workplace, says Prof Magley, are an organisation that tolerates it and male-dominated workplaces. “We know that when women work under men and are alone, they are more likely to be harassed. [The answer] isn’t about hiring one woman. One woman goes into a workplace and sees what is happening and her voice won’t be heard in the same way as hiring three women.”

The answer is harder than sprucing up old training programmes. It requires organisational change. As an article in the Harvard Business Review last year said: “We already know how to reduce sexual harassment at work, and the answer is actually pretty simple: hire and promote more women.”

The EEOC report identified key factors that might make harassment more likely to occur in a workplace. Apart from male-dominated workforces, they included businesses employing many young workers, because they might be less aware of laws and appropriate behaviour, and workers who depend on tips, and might therefore tolerate harassment.

It also drew attention to workplaces’ “high-value employees”, such as the “rain-making” partner or prizewinning researcher who appear to escape reproach because managers might worry about jeopardising the relationship.

Another area of concern is workplaces with monotonous tasks. The EEOC said that for workers who “are not actively engaged or have ‘time on their hands’, harassing or bullying behaviour may be a way to vent frustration or avoid boredom.”

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says recent news stories have created an awareness of sexual harassment, although he is wary of calling it a watershed.

“It could be a blip rather than a moment of significant cultural change,” he says. “The issues are deep-seated and take a long time to address. If people have been behaving in a certain way for 20 years, they have got into a habitual way of [operating] and that is not addressed overnight.”

He adds that changing the culture requires more than just sending out messages from the top. “Managers at all levels should lead by example through their behaviour.”

Line managers, in particular, need to identify inappropriate banter: “If you don’t pick up on those early signs that lines are being blurred, then behaviours become a culture of acceptability of that behaviour.”

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