Journal of Employee Assistance Vol. 48 no. 2 - 2nd Quarter 2018 

Feature Article
Ending Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By Nancy Board, MSW

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been around for as long as men and women have been working together. Many employers have “no-tolerance” policies in place as there are legal consequences for companies that fail to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

However, since nearly every U.S. organization – 94% – (SHRM, 2018) has a sexual harassment policy, clearly the problem is bigger than policy. EAPs have run training programs for years on the legal aspects of sexual harassment. But do these trainings actually make a difference?

Trainings aren’t Enough
Some studies suggest no. “Training was least effective with people who equated masculinity with power. In other words, the men who were probably more likely to be harassers were the ones who were least likely to benefit [from the training],” said Eden King, a psychologist at Rice University. And the purpose of the training is to reduce harassment to zero! As a result, while researchers say that training is essential, it clearly is not enough. 

If employees aren’t reporting harassment because it is “unsafe” to do so, for fear of retribution and retaliation, job loss, etc., then a more deepening lack of trust in the organization goes untreated and permeates. To actually prevent harassment, companies need to create a culture in which women are treated as equals and all employees treat one another with respect.

Professor Kim M. Cobb of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who is active in helping more women advance in the sciences, said recently, “There’s a big gray zone between legal sexual harassment and a culture of inclusion… In that gradient, real damage is done on a daily basis that changes people’s lives and changes people’s careers.”

Johnny Taylor, President and CEO at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently wrote that, “Cultural change is the most important thing you can do — all of us can do — to make sure that all people in the workplace are respected, valued, and empowered to succeed.” Taylor noted that HR and EAP should work together in addressing this issue.

The Power of Power 
Since most corporations are led by men, white males in particular, there is an inherent privilege, an established pattern of power that awards men in authority with an ease of operating in the world. For those who abuse this power, (e.g. Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Steve Wynn, et. al.) the prey often is more vulnerable and has relatively low status and power. It is not unusual for younger, less powerful female employees to be the targets of harassment and bullying.

An anonymous woman shared, “To participate and get ahead I had to act as if the harassment didn’t bother me, or else I would never have gotten ahead. I had to act as if and just move on, so I could hang with the men and not let it bother me.”

If toxic masculinity can lead to abuse of power, which leads to abuse of women, how can we as EA professionals impact this dynamic? Can men and women work together to create change? Can we collectively shift the status power differential?  

In attempting to understand the male point of view on this subject, I suggest reading the work of Marianne Schnall, a widely published writer, interviewer, and founder of the What Will It Take movement, who recently asked a number of men, “Why do you think men don’t speak out?” (Schnall, 2017). 

Case Study
In 2015, a U.S.-based organization, XYZ, with nearly 200 employees in the tech field, hired an “impressive on paper” and verbally astute, white male middle manager “superstar” for a role that had 25 direct reports. Company XYZ had a C-suite consisting of three women and nine men, all Caucasian.

Initially this middle manager was seen as a change maker, action-oriented, outspoken and well-liked by most of the senior team. After a few months, several female employees reported that the manager’s behavior at times made them feel “uncomfortable.”

The recently hired manager was witnessed to have stepped into a “gray” area, in which nothing completely tangible could be seen, and yet subtle hints and messages were being noticed as he spent a good deal of time with the youngest women on the team, and typically after 5 p.m. He soon arranged frequent social gatherings after hours with staff mostly 15-20 years younger than him. 

Once revelations of more specific incidents were shared with HR, it was clear that there was a pattern developing of inappropriate behavior, particularly for an organization that touted itself as an employer of choice and a best place to work for women. Within a matter of weeks, nine resignations became public knowledge, all from women only.

It was later revealed that the CEO supported this manager, wanted him on his team, and that he would be “coached” by a female HR leader to change his behavior. In other words, he kept his job, despite a “no jerks are allowed to work here” practice.

In discussions with the women who left, every one of them revealed that this manager and the leadership’s lack of reigning in his behavior, was a big part of their decision to leave. Some had spoken out to HR against him and some did not. Many shared they did not feel the culture matched a level of trust they thought they had when they joined the company. Some said it was not worth it to stay – they did not feel safe there. Not only did they not trust the manager, but they lost trust for HR and the leadership team as well. The women did not take legal action, but they vented their experiences online (on Glassdoor), actions that can be quite damaging for a company’s reputation.

Men and Women Engaged as Allies and Partners 
Conversations with men about men need to occur to analyze, assess, and discuss various behaviors of men and how men need to engage and speak out. Organizations such as A Call to Men, The ManKind Project, and #HowIWillChange Twitter campaign are just a few examples of change solutions. I would argue that men:

* Should hold themselves and other men accountable for their behaviors. They must stop choosing “peer pressure” over women’s rights.
* Need to admit the ways in which they are complicit – both directly and indirectly – in harmful actions.
* Should be at the forefront of change, alongside women, in building solutions.
* Really listen to women as they share stories of facing harassment, assault, and other forms of discrimination 

Culture change starts at the top – who is in the C-suite and who we bring into the C-suite – and who we promote matters. Since mainly men are in these top positions, it means that men must work together with women to build a better culture for everyone. 

What Can EA Practitioners Do?

* Learn how to assess for harassment in the workplace and recognize how it impacts the individual as well as the organization. According to University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd, “Few people know how to recognize the mental health issues that happen after harassment. Pretty much any common form of emotional or psychological distress can be experienced after sexual harassment. People may suffer from anxiety or depressive issues. Some can even be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the effects may not show up for years.” 

* Make yourself available as a resource on change management and workplace improvement. EA practitioners can offer tremendous value to companies in ensuring that discussions on workplace culture and appropriate behavior are at the top of everyone’s mind. Are you seated at the table with the C-suite in these talks? What about HR? You need to step in and address how workplace culture impacts engagement and employee performance.

* Review EEOC guidance and updated policies. Understand how laws are designed to create better conditions in the workplace. New guidance is issued in a 95-page report assembled by a task force focused on harassment prevention (EEOC, 2016).

* Review your organization’s harassment policies and training materials. Revisit this discussion with your HR partners. Have the harassment policies and trainings changed over the past year? Is the information offered impacting the workplace enough? Have you added bystander additions such as, “If you see something, say something”? Do you have other content that would be helpful to add to existing training materials? Are you a trusted consultant and advisor to the organizations you work with? How does HR handle complaints and policy violations? What is the EAP’s role in these violations?

* Recognize that sexual harassment not only causes emotional and psychological pain, but it can also threaten an individual’s financial well-being. Many women say that they cannot afford to lose their job, so they put up with and remain silent. What resources are at your disposal when considering the overall impact of harassment on an employee’s well-being? 

Solutions to these complex problems of gender inequality and harassment cannot be found by men and women working in siloes or be kept undercover any longer. As HR, EAP, and health & wellness professionals we can and need to be part of the solution.
But short-term therapy is arguably not enough. These are deep-seeded issues that warrant much introspection and inner work. An EAP can provide a window of trust, support, and resources for further actions to take root. A person full of shame and self-hatred is only going to hurt more people if left untreated. 

We are long overdue for a national conversation about the abuse of power and privilege, the socialization of men and boys, the objectification of women, and workplace cultures of toxic masculinity. Healthy leadership demands that we uncover and shed our own biases and prejudices in order to be compassionate, productive servant leaders.

Ending sexual harassment in the workplace is at a watershed moment. The most successful companies understand that investing in women’s health, well-being, and leadership impacts the bottom line. The best workplaces of tomorrow depend on our action today.

Nancy Board is a long-time international EA professional and co-founder of Women 4 Wellbeing (GW 4W), a 501 (c) (3) non-profit dedicated to empowering healthy female leaders for a more sustainable world. She leads powerful transition programs for women on four continents. Nancy can be reached at


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