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Anti-Harassment Culture

Illustration by Eva Vazquez

How to Create a Culture to Prevent Harassment

M echelle Vinson needed a job. So, she went into the Meritor Savings Bank and met Vice President Sidney Taylor to see if they were hiring. They were, Vinson applied, and she was hired as a teller-trainee under Taylor’s supervision.

During her four years with the bank, Vinson was promoted to teller, head teller, and assistant branch manager. She also endured a pattern of sexual harassment by her supervisor, Taylor.

Shortly after her probationary period at the bank was over, Taylor invited Vinson to dinner and propositioned her for sex. She initially refused but was afraid she would lose her job, so she ultimately said yes.

After that initial incident, Taylor repeatedly demanded sexual favors from Vinson and had sex with her an estimated 40 or 50 times. He also fondled her in front of other employees, exposed himself to her in the women’s restroom, and raped her.

Vinson never reported the harassment to the bank or Taylor’s supervisors because she was afraid of him. But after she was terminated for taking extended leave, Vinson filed suit against the bank claiming she was subject to sexual harassment by her supervisor—a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Meritor Savings Bank attempted to have the case dismissed, claiming that because Vinson never reported Taylor, the bank could not be held liable for his behavior.

Vinson’s case made its way through the court system before landing at the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark ruling, the Court held that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is prohibited by U.S. federal law. It also held that just because the bank had a procedure to report the harassment—and Vinson chose not to use it—does not mean that the bank was shielded from liability.

“…the bank’s grievance procedure apparently required an employee to complain first to her supervisor, in this case Taylor,” wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the Court. “Since Taylor was the alleged perpetrator, it is not altogether surprising that respondent failed to invoke the procedure and report her grievance to him. [Meritor’s] contention that [Vinson’s] failure should insulate it from liability might be substantially stronger if its procedures were better calculated to encourage victims of harassment to come forward.”

Vinson applied for that job in 1974. Rehnquist wrote his opinion for the Court in 1986. And yet, decades later, sexual harassment in the workplace remains an ongoing problem. In 2018, the most recent year that data is available, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed 41 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment occurred—more than a 50 percent increase in suits from 2017.

The EEOC also saw a 13.6 percent increase in the number of sexual harassment charges individuals filed with the commission in 2018, and it recovered nearly $70 million for victims through administrative enforcement and litigation—up from $47.5 million in 2017.


One positive, however, is that after the #MeToo Movement took off in 2017, there is greater awareness and acknowledgment of the existence of sexual harassment in the workplace.

“When #MeToo arrived, the big change was the degree that people are willing to speak up and speak out,” says EEOC Commissioner Victoria A. Lipnic. “There’s now a recognition and focus on culture. That was not the case prior to October 2017. That was something that we in our task force report in 2016 made a big, important point about—that culture more than anything matters.”

Lipnic joined the EEOC nearly 10 years ago when she was appointed by then U.S. President Barack Obama and approved by the U.S. Senate to serve as a commissioner. At the time, Lipnic says she was “appalled” at the number of sexual harassment complaints the EEOC continued to see nearly 30 years after the Vinson case—and so was her fellow commissioner, Chai R. Feldblum.

“I talked to all of our offices around the country, and they said that if the EEOC wanted to, we could have a docket of nothing but harassment cases—and more specifically, nothing but sexual harassment cases,” Lipnic says.

So in 2015, the EEOC created the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace to examine the extent of harassment, what allows it to flourish, and how to prevent it. What the task force found—through interviews with stakeholders, experts, and victims—was disturbing. Almost one-third of the 90,000 charges the EEOC received in 2015 were allegations of workplace harassment. But despite the nearly 30,000 claims it received, the task force learned that most harassment is never reported.

“The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action—either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint,” Lipnic and Feldblum explained in a report released in June 2016. “Roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.”

Most individuals chose not to report the harassment out of fear of disbelief, skepticism, or inaction on their claim. Instead, most people attempted to avoid their harasser, deny or downplay the situation, or ignore, forget, or endure the behavior.

While sexual harassment affects all people, it predominantly impacts women. The task force found that “anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace,” according to the report. The percentages vary due to how questions about harassment at work are worded.

For instance, when the term was not defined in the survey, 50 percent of women said they had experienced sexual harassment, and 25 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed in the workplace. When asked if they had experienced one or more sexually based behaviors, such as “unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion,” 60 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed, either inside or outside the workplace.

And when women do experience sexual harassment at work, they often turn to family members, friends, or colleagues for support, instead of formally reporting it.

Risk factors. To better understand why sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, the task force also looked at environmental risk factors that affect organizations.

It found that harassment is more likely to occur in homogenous workforces, where the workforce has little diversity.

“For example, sexual harassment of women is more likely to occur in workplaces that have primarily male employees, and racial/ethnic harassment is more likely to occur where one race or ethnicity is predominant,” according to the report. “Workers with different demographic backgrounds from the majority of the workforce can feel isolated and may actually be, or appear to be, vulnerable to pressure from others.”

Milk tea restaurant chain Tapioca Express and two of its franchises in San Diego, California, were recently charged with allowing the owner to harass young Filipino female employees, taking advantage of time alone with them to make unwanted sexual advances.

Tapioca agreed to pay $102,500 to settle charges brought by the EEOC that all three companies failed to prevent and correct the harassing behavior.

“We commend the young women for coming forward to shine a light on the harassment to which they were subjected,” said Christopher Green, director of the EEOC’s San Diego Local Office. “Their strength may give courage to other young people or those in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community who may be suffering harassment or discrimination in the workplace to come forward as well.”

However, the task force found that workplaces that are “extremely diverse” are also at risk because workers from different cultural backgrounds may be “less aware of laws and workplace norms,” which can allow harassment to occur.

Another risk factor is workplaces where workers do not conform to workplace norms, such as a male employee acting more feminine in a male-dominated work environment. The task force also found that “coarsened social discourse”—even outside the workplace—can make harassment seem more acceptable.

“For example, after the 9/11 attacks, there was a noted increase in workplace harassment based on religion and national origin,” the report explained. “Thus, events outside a workplace may pose a risk factor that employers need to consider and proactively address, as appropriate.”

Other risk factors include organizations with a high number of young employees who may not understand that their actions are a form of harassment; workplaces with significant power disparities, such as factories with plant managers and assembly line workers, or the military; organizations that rely on customer service and client satisfaction; and workplaces where employees are engaged in monotonous tasks because boredom may lead to bullying or harassment.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., recently agreed to pay $95,000 to settle EEOC sexual harassment and retaliation charges that stemmed from Austin Melton, a 22-year-old manager at a San Jose Chipotle store at the time, who endured physical and verbal harassment from his female supervisor.

Melton’s supervisor propositioned him and his then-girlfriend for sex, “touched him inappropriately, and posted a ‘scoreboard’ in the main office to track the staff’s sexual activities,” according to the EEOC. “When Melton reported the harassment, he faced further mistreatment including being locked in a walk-in freezer…. After Chipotle failed to adequately address the harassment, Melton quit.”

The position at Chipotle was Melton’s first job after high school, and in an EEOC press release he said he found it hard to speak up about the harassment at work and to report it to the EEOC when no action was taken to stop it.

“Austin was simply trying to do his job, as he worked to support himself and his girlfriend,” said EEOC Trial Attorney James H. Baker. “He faced conditions that no employee should have to accept in exchange for a paycheck.”

The task force also pointed out that isolated workspaces, decentralized workplaces, workplaces that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption, and workplaces with high value employees are also risk factors for harassment.

“Superstars” are individuals seen as bringing high value to their employer, such as high-earning investment traders, surgeons, professors, or law firm partners who attract lucrative clients, the report explained.

“These workplaces provide opportunities for harassment, since senior management may be reluctant to challenge the behavior of their high value employees,” the report said. “The high value employees, themselves, may believe that the general rules of the workplace do not apply to them. In addition, the behavior of such individuals may go on outside the view of anyone with the authority to stop it.”

For instance, in December 2019 rideshare company Uber entered into a nationwide agreement to strengthen its business culture against sexual harassment and retaliation—and pay $4.4 million to resolve charges brought by the EEOC.

The commission began investigating Uber in 2017 and found reasonable cause to believe it permitted a culture of sexual harassment and retaliation against individuals who complained about the behavior. As part of the settlement, Uber agreed to create a system to identify employees who have been the subject of more than one harassment complaint. The system will also identify managers who do not respond to concerns of sexual harassment in a timely manner.

“In particular, employers should take note of Uber’s commitment to holding management accountable and identifying repeat offenders so that high-performing, superstar harassers are not allowed to continue their behavior,” said EEOC San Francisco District Director William Tamayo in a statement. “The tech industry, among others, has often ignored allegations of sexual harassment when an accused harasser is seen as more valuable to the company than the accuser.”

Prevention. While organizations need to have procedures to report and investigate claims of sexual harassment in the workplace, they can also take steps to proactively prevent the behavior in the first place.

In its research, the task force found that to effectively do this, organizations need to have commitment from leadership to create a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it is also financially beneficial to the organization.

“At the tip of the iceberg are direct financial costs associated with harassment complaints,” according to the EEOC report. “Time, energy, and resources are diverted from operation of the business to legal representation, settlements, litigation, court awards, and damages. These are only the most visible and headline-grabbing expenses.”

Other expenses, which cannot always be calculated, include decreased workplace performance and productivity, increased employee turnover, and reputational harm.

The report recommends that leaders create a “sense of urgency” about preventing harassment in the workplace, such as assessing risk factors that can predicate harassment.

“For example, if employees tend to work in isolated workspaces, an employer may want to explore whether it is possible for the work to get done as effectively if individuals worked in teams,” the report explained.

Organizations should also have policies and procedures in place to address harassment, and conduct training so the policies can be followed. This means putting resources—money and time—towards this effort.

“Employees must believe that their leaders are authentic in demanding a workplace free of harassment,” according to the report. “Nothing speaks to that credibility more than what gets paid for in a budget and what gets scheduled on a calendar.”

One organization that is putting these recommendations into practice is Deloitte, which hosts an annual Inclusion Summit to bring together individuals from different backgrounds and experiences to hear from leaders and experts about advancing inclusion within Deloitte itself.

In 2019, Deloitte held a Day of Understanding across its U.S. offices to create a space for candid conversations around diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias.

Deloitte also made a concentrated effort to diversify its cybersecurity workforce—one-third of which are female, including its recently promoted principal, Deborah Golden, who is the first woman to lead the company’s U.S. cyber practice.

“I’ve been here for 24 years, and we’ve always had some form of women in business, diversity, and inclusion program—and we’re continuing to evolve those programs,” Golden says.

This is not always the case across industry, she adds, but Deloitte made a commitment at the leadership level to create a diverse organization where is everyone is welcome.

“Deloitte 100 percent does that,” she says, adding that Deloitte participated in a Pride Ride and other activities in June 2019 to mark LGBT Pride Month. “It’s not only something our executives support—but actively participate in.”

And once leadership makes its commitment to creating a diverse and harassment-free workplace, it then needs to hold those who violate the policies and procedures accountable.

“These accountability systems must ensure that those who engage in harassment are held responsible in a meaningful, appropriate, and proportional manner, and that those whose job it is to prevent or respond to harassment, directly or indirectly, are rewarded for doing that job well, or penalized for failing to do so,” according to the report.

Frontline supervisors have an especially important role because they are often the first to observe behavior at work. They are also often the first people to whom individuals will complain.

“They have to know how to correctly respond—that they don’t just brush it off,” Lipnic says, meaning they need to be trained on how to handle allegations of harassment. And security professionals have a doubly important role to play.

“I’ve spent years on this topic now, and it’s struck me that it’s a coincidence of our legal system that harassment is considered a form of discrimination—that’s just how the law developed,” she explains. “But on a very practical level, it’s a safety issue. And there’s such an opportunity for people who are engaged in the safety of workplaces to gain greater depth on the topic, demonstrate greater engagement, and work on a partnership basis with the leadership of organizations.”

For instance, Lipnic says security professionals can take an active role in conducting climate assessments of their organization so they understand how employees feel about their safety or factors that could encourage harassment.

It is also critical for security officers to have this understanding because they need to have firsthand knowledge of what situations employees find themselves in that impact their safety. This understanding is especially valuable when organizations are planning special events, such as a company party where clients and alcohol might be present—both factors that could increase the risk of sexual harassment. (See “The Intoxication Issue,Security Management, February 2019)

“Security officers are trained to recognize risk, and if we have learned anything from the #MeToo Movement, I hope that it’s the degree of risk that so many people are in in all kinds of workplace environments,” Lipnic adds.

Megan Gates is senior editor at Security Management. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @mgngates.