The Strongest Predictor of Sexual Harassment? Your Culture!

A landmark study released this weekend by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine revealed that the strongest predictor of sexual harassment has little to do with individual perpetrators. Rather, the most potent indicator is what researchers call “organizational climate”—in other words, your company’s culture.

While there is no silver bullet to reducing sexual harassment, we’ve found that one of the best ways to keep harassers at bay is to not just throw out the bad apples but focus instead on improving the whole barrel. As businesses are being held increasingly accountable for taking ownership of sexual harassment, we’re seeing that culture remains key to an enjoyable and competitive workplace.

HR and culture professionals have said that, to improve the organizational climate, leaders must set the example, women must be promoted, and organizations must take swift action against inappropriate behavior. But where does one start with these undertakings? We’ve compiled three steps you can take to improve your culture and help decrease the likelihood of sexual harassment.

3 Steps to Protect Your Culture from Sexual Harassment

Get clear on your commitments and definitions

Strengthening your company’s response to harassment creates not only a healthier workplace but also a stronger public image. A study from the UCLA Anderson School of Management found that when an organization is timely, informative, and considerate towards victims in the event of a claim, their reputation can be restored to the level of one with no incidence of sexual harassment at all.

Clarify your policies around harassment and discrimination. Is there an emoji or turn of phrase that might be questionable? A stated turnaround time promised alleged victims? Make this common knowledge in your organization—Facebook has a list of inappropriate behaviors—so employees know your standards and understand there are consequences for ill-suited actions.

Get employees involved in improving workplace culture

Your employees can be one of your strongest prevention tools if trained and educated properly. Several thought leaders have suggested bystander training, civility training, and even reporting. Doing so not only allows culture teams to delegate responsibility but also addresses a shifting demand in society. While a majority of Americans in 1998 said people in the workplace were too sensitive about harassment, more than half of Americans today say people in the workplace are not sensitive enough.

Make a case for bystander requirements or incentives and find new ways to encourage reporting. Getting employees involved can empower them with a responsibility they value, increase the likelihood that unwelcome behaviors are swiftly addressed, and reduce the occurrence of unwanted actions.

Bring culture and narrative into your policy

Sexual harassment policies aren’t just legal documents. They are culturally significant, meaning-making texts that play a role in defining and stopping unprofessional behavior. Policies lacking in a strong narrative are susceptible to being usurped by harassers. But, when infused with emotional language and backed up with promised action, they disrupt offenders’ ability to harm fellow workers.

Turn your policies into a cultural code and meet with stakeholders at multiple levels to gather input. It’s your chance to ensure a safe working environment for everyone.

The best workplaces are built on a set of clear and compelling cultural codes, manifested in both word and deed. Implement these changes and you’ll see a happier and more inclusive workforce.