Like many, I have been simultaneously saddened and energized by the national reckoning with sexual violence, which has crystalized under the banner of Tarana Burke’s hashtag #MeToo. Many women and men have been affirmed in their experiences of sexual violence for the first time, and we, as a society, seem prepared to confront this problem more openly than in the past.
Unquestionably, we are moving in the right direction.
Yet, as a new year begins, I also sense a mood of uncertainty about what’s next.
The anti-discrimination policies many institutions have in place are necessary, but not sufficient, to end harassment and abuse. Widespread sexual harassment has persisted even after decades of anti-harassment policy development, with particularly alarming prevalence among transgender and gender-nonconforming workers and students.
TAASA recently developed a white paper offering concrete guidelines that can be adapted for use by corporations, schools and other institutions. These guidelines focus on holistic sexual harassment prevention strategies, with an emphasis on a few key areas: leadership, policy and training. We have reached a turning point as a society; our next steps must be designed and executed to support survivors on their paths to hope, healing, and justice.
Leadership, not policy, is the true cornerstone of sexual harassment prevention. Regardless of the strength of a particular policy, harassment is more likely to continue without a demonstrated commitment to eliminating it.
To prevent or counteract a permissive workplace environment, leaders must acknowledge that the sexual harassment policy alone cannot prevent harassment; they need to enthusiastically enlist the help of managers and staff to foster a zero-tolerance environment. They must undertake a full assessment of the workplace’s harassment risk factors, take proactive steps to eliminate those risks and allocate sufficient resources for effective harassment-prevention strategies, including sufficient staff time for participation.
At this pivotal moment, when many are reassessing their roles in preventing and responding to sexual harassment, we urge organizational leaders to begin with this premise: Mere legal compliance is not enough to eliminate sexual harassment.
A clear policy prohibiting sexual harassment, an accompanying complaint system and proper training are essential to eliminating sexual harassment from any workplace.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommends a comprehensive harassment policy with a clear description of the complaint system, multiple and easily accessible avenues for reporting, a process to protect against retaliation and assurances that the organization will take immediate and proportionate action if harassment is found to have occurred.
Because the written policy is often the first place an employee turns after experiencing harassment, it is crucial that the policy is easily accessible, clear and serves as the written embodiment of the leadership’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace.
Finally, for even the strongest policy to be effective, people must understand it. Therefore, an essential component of a sexual harassment prevention strategy is comprehensive, evidence-based training. But to get results, the training must be overtly championed by senior leaders, repeated and reinforced regularly, provided to employees at every level and location of the organization and provided in a clear, easy-to-understand style and format.
As innumerable accounts by women and men have illustrated in recent months, sexual harassment and assault are prevalent. Countless women, men, boys and girls endure it at work and in school, frequently remaining silent for fear of losing friends and colleagues, of lost opportunities for advancement, of being branded as a troublemaker or of any combination of other forms of retaliation.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to build meaningful protections from harassment and retaliation, to implement processes that are truly unbiased, and in doing so, to earn the trust of the people we’re protecting. To build on the progress that has already been made, we must commit to long-term strategies to improve the cultures of our workplaces and institutions. It will not be sufficient to rely on the same policies and prevention approaches that have brought us to this point.