A Harassment-Free Workplace: Where Social Justice Meets the Bottom Line
Imagine a workplace where civility and respect are the norm, where employees and management do not need policies and procedures - and lawyers - to define proper workplace conduct. It should not sound like a fantasy, and yet workplace harassment is rife, and corporate and government responses to it assume that legal liability will curtail microaggressions and harassment in the workplace.
But we know that not to be true. The EEOC reported that in 2020 it resolved 62 harassment suits recovering $84.4 million, benefitting 902 harassed workers. That’s one year of the EEOC’s litigation; it excludes other EEOC administrative actions, state government actions, and private lawsuits.
Legal liability defines what conduct costs a company in legal fees, in settlements, in separating employees – from each other or the organization entirely. What if, for a moment, we choose to consider not the law, but the people; not the cost of hiring lawyers, but the cost of negatively impacting both the employees’ and the organization’s health?
Research shows direct and indirect costs to employee health and corporate financial results when harassment occurs in the workplace: whether between employees, management, and employees, or clients and employees. A culture that tolerates employees suffering emotional and physical discomfort from everyday insults, slights, and degradations (i.e., microaggressions) or behaviors along what Hollaback! calls the “spectrum of disrespect,” incurs a cost to employees, colleagues, and the organization.
These (mis)behaviors lead to absenteeism, diminished work product, and a general reluctance to speak up, fearing reprisals. Workplace harassment also affects others in the workplace who keep quiet and keep their heads down, to avoid being next. It also affects the bottom line. Firms with a higher occurrence of and tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace have lower profitability.
Workplace harassment drives away workers and clients, instead rewarding those who bully others’ gender identity, religion, race, national origin, or abilities. It limits diversity of opinion. And that has a bottom-line effect, too. Research shows that diversity results in greater profitability, yet companies stagnate in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
So, how do you tackle the issue of workplace harassment if not from a legal perspective?
Every human being, of whatever origin, of whatever station, deserves respect. We must each respect others even as we respect ourselves. -U. Thant, U.N. Secretary General (1961-1971)
1) Understand your purpose and set the goal: civility in the workplace matters.
If your purpose is solely to avoid legal liability, then your focus on short-term problems leaves long-term issues unresolved. You may rid the business of detrimental employees, but turnover will continue both when the business terminates the harassers, and when harassed employees say “enough” and depart.
This cycle continues, and the culture remains stagnant at best and inhospitable (even dangerous) to employees at worst. This is likely where your business exists now, so why continue on the same path and expect different results?
If instead your purpose is to create a healthy business – both for profits and for people – then viewing the workplace environment through a social justice lens reaps benefits for all.
2) Change the culture: not performative but transformative.
We often hear the phrases “the tone at the top” and “lead by example,” and less “do unto others.” They are all an integral part of changing corporate culture.
Changing culture starts with executives and the Board setting a harassment-free workplace as a priority. It is not just a statement of purpose, but a lived one.
Performative statements without dedicated action, understanding, and a willingness to do better offer no positive change and may have an adverse effect: showing employees that their safety is not a priority, and that public statements are meant to increase profits and improve reputation on the outside, while disrespect remains inside.
[Related: A Black Woman’s Worth at Work]
3) Actions every day, not annually or quarterly: training and policies.
Training. Yes, people need to learn how to conduct themselves in the workplace. Language matters, in person, in emails, and on Zoom.
What you may call a “joke” is a microagression; words have as much impact as a punch. We teach children that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” but that simply is not true. Engage in the hard conversations about civility and culture, the –isms (racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism, to name a few), and community.
These are not one-and-done programs. We work together every day, and every day requires an awareness of our workplace culture and environment – for us and our businesses.
And yes, you do need policies and procedures that include human resources responsive to employee concerns (management has its own power and voice). Separately acknowledge the intersection of anti-harassment policies with your DEI program to not only bring diverse thoughts, voices, and experiences to the table, but ensure that the environment dignifies their presence and respects and encourages their involvement in the workplace.
Importantly, check in with employees to make sure it works. Policies and procedures mean little to organizational culture change (and relatedly, profitability) if their only purpose is to paper the file for the lawyers.
Will this fix your workplace harassment overnight? No, a magic wand doesn’t exist to transform Cinderella’s disdainful stepmother and stepsisters into nurturing managers and executives. It will take time.
Shifting the culture will have at least three tangible effects:
- Improved employee engagement. If your employees arrive at work without dreading the comments or actions of the boss, of colleagues, or of clients, attendance increases and mindset changes. Focus improves and so does productivity.
- Improved financial health. With improved employee engagement, profits increase. Happier employees lead to more productive employees, and productivity increases profitability.
- Decreased focus on legal liability. Legal liability always remains a consideration in workplace actions. The law won’t magically disappear if you change your approach to employee contentedness. If done right, though, it may lead to lesser liabilities.
It’s a win-win: Employees treated with respect and dignity result in a more profitable business.
Hillary Sobel is a donor, volunteer, lawyer, feminist, and leader. She sits on the Board of Directors of Hollaback! a non-profit organization on a mission to end harassment in all of its forms: in the street, online, at work, wherever people gather.
Note: Views expressed are author's own and do not constitute legal advice, nor does any information shared in this article establish an attorney-client relationship.
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