More Sexual-Harassment-Policy Rethinking

Came across this recent research from the University of Missouri that adds credence to a Q&A I did late last year with the author of a Sexual harassment at work in the officebook titled Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace.

Both the MU researchers and the author of the book, Kim Elsesser, seem to be getting at the same point about today’s sexual-harassment policies in the workplace. For the most part, they’re not effective because they incite more fear of possible infractions than encourage healthy banter between men and women.

The more recent findings, from MU, studied how employees’ interpretations of sexual-harassment policies can invalidate the purpose of the policies. Researchers found that employee perceptions of how exactly “sexual harassment” is defined by a company’s policy can, in effect, eliminate or reshape the meaning of the policies and contradict the norms and values of the companies that try to enforce them.

As one of report’s co-authors, Debbie Dougherty, associate dean of research and professor of organizational communication in the MU College of Arts and Science, puts it:

“Although the policy statement [might specify] the importance of building a culture of dignity and respect, the participants in the study reinterpreted the policy in such a way that they believed it actually created a culture of fear. This inhibits the camaraderie participants believed was produced by normalized sexual banter, behavior and jokes.

“Our findings suggest that the ways in which employees construct meaning around the policy can preclude the usage and effectiveness of the policy; therefore, sexual-harassment-policy research should focus on the complex ways that our understandings shape policy meanings in order to find more effective ways to address sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Which is kind of what Elsesser gets at in her book. It’s her premise that senior male executives and male managers, who can and want to help women under their supervision advance, are reluctant to reach out or get into any personal discussions with them for fear they’ll be breaking company rules and policies governing sexual harassment and discrimination.

As her book’s description on Amazon puts it, “many male executives stick with other men, especially when it comes to dinners, drinks, late-night meetings or business trips, [and] when it’s time for promotions or pay raises, these same executives are more likely to show preference to the employees with whom they feel most comfortable — other men.”

So the vicious cycle continues.

Just as the MU researchers suggest, Elsesser thinks HR executives need to be aware that focusing on sexual-harassment prevention may have secondary consequences. As she says,

“Right now, our efforts to eliminate sexual harassment may be creating this barrier between the sexes. Obviously, we need to continue on the path of reducing sexual harassment — but we must figure out a way to do this without creating this barrier. Instead, we should be thinking of ways to bring the sexes together.”

Dougherty would add that organizations need to discuss their sexual-harassment policies in a clear, concise manner “to ensure each employee has the same understanding of what is meant by sexual harassment.”

“Organizations,” she adds, “also would benefit from sexual-harassment training that acknowledges the gender dynamics of harassment.”

Not to mention the gender dynamics of trying, at all costs, to avoid committing such harassment.