The One Big Predictor of Sexual Harassment in The Workplace (And What Individuals Can Do About It)
Since January I’ve facilitated more than three dozen workshops on respectful workplaces — workshops aimed at changing behavior, resetting norms and recalibrating expectations in the workplace about all forms of harassment. One thing I’ve noticed is that participants want facts, and they want solutions. People want to understand why harassment happens and what they can do to make it stop.
The One Big Predictor of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
The research on this topic doesn’t mince words: “by far, the greatest predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment is the organizational climate.” So what is climate? In the workplace, climate refers to perceptions and expectations, “the norms of the workplace; it basically guides employees . . . to know what to do when no one is watching.”
When we’re talking about workplace climate and sexual harassment, we want to know the following:
Do you think there’s a risk in reporting harassment?
Do you think an offender will be sanctioned for wrongdoing?
Do you think you won’t be taken seriously if you report?
If you answered yes to the first question and no to the second two, then there’s a perception that the workplace is tolerant of sexual harassment. In that environment, women are more likely to be directly [sexually] harassed  and to witness harassment of others.
The bottom line is that “[t]he degree to which a[n] organization’s climate is seen by those in the organization as permissive of sexual harassment has the strongest relationship with how much sexual harassment occurs in the organization.”
Recently, I’ve heard from a doctor who was told by a senior physician that she was “the wrong phenotype” to perform transplants, and a woman in media whose coworkers decided she was cool enough to be told the “jelly joke” at work. A nonprofit employee remarked that in a meeting, a powerful woman was described as “missing the [femininity] chip.” In workplaces where harassment is tolerated, no one speaks up or takes action when comments like these are made.
Improving Workplaces That Have A Climate Problem
Where do we start? In organizations where there are strong, clear, transparent consequences for harassment, it is possible to significantly reduce the likelihood that sexual harassment will occur in the first place.
Let’s say you work in an environment where you think harassment wouldn’t be tolerated, and you’d be supported if you spoke up, but you just don’t know what to say. That environment is ripe for bystander intervention training.
In a bystander intervention scenario, colleagues are equipped to identify inappropriate behaviors, and speak up when it happens. Bystander intervention with coworkers is different from bystander intervention in public places or with strangers — in the workplace, people are (ideally) invested in nurturing collegial relationships. In other words, intervention in the workplace is focused on changing minds, not shaming or distracting.
Recent research has found that bystander intervention programs on college campuses have a meaningful effect — those who take part in the training for bystanders report a greater ability and intention to intervene than those who don’t take the training, and even more importantly, those who receive training reported stepping up to intervene more than those who didn’t get the training. The effect of the trainings is that participants use their power as community members to take action that prevents sexual assault.
What can be difficult about bystander intervention is knowing what to do or say, and then being ready to take action in the moment. With some practice, it can be easier. Here are Four I’s, which are tools in your toolbox to speak up when your voice is needed.
Interrupt — stop the moment, don’t let it pass
Inquire — asking questions lets the speaker consider their words and actions
Inform — an opportunity to let the speaker know their actions/words are harmful
Intensify — if someone else speaks up first, voice your agreement
The first I, interrupt, is a first step to intervention. The most impactful moment to respond to bias or harassment is right away. In a recent workshop a manager told about how, when a team member made a harassing remark, her intuitive response was to wave her hands in the air and yell ‘stop!’ And that worked for her. She was able to address the remark in the moment.
In that situation, the intervenor was a team manager in a team meeting. She spoke from a position of power. That won’t always be the case, and in situations where there’s a risk in speaking up, potential intervenors have to assess their own safety. Your safety goes beyond physical safety and may include concerns about retaliation, job security, or other repercussions.
You may want to take your message through an intermediary, such as a trusted manager, or by way of another ally — men reading this, yes, that means you — to determine a response. In this situation, a valuable consideration is weighing the cost of speaking up against the cost of not speaking up.
Asking questions are a good form of interruption, because they’re easy to remember and may be your first thought, as well. Questions give the person who made the inappropriate remark the chance to reflect on what they just said.
Can you explain what you mean?
Do you want to try that again?
Informing, or educating someone about their actions or words is another valuable response. In some situations, a person is not consciously aware that their words or actions are harmful. While this isn’t meant to absolve individuals of their responsibility to understand what actions are harmful, not responding reinforces that their actions are tolerated. We discuss in workshops a situation familiar to many, when a coworker uses language that everyone finds offensive, but no one speaks up about. In this situation, a colleague going through a divorce uses misogynistic language to describe his ex-wife, in front of all his coworkers. Having some responses ready to address language can be helpful:
That’s not appropriate for the workplace
You’re better than that
Intensify (boost the signal)
Finally, in situations where someone else speaks up as a bystander in response to bias or harassment, lending your voice of agreement is a powerful message to others about norms and expectations in the workplace. This is particularly significant for managers and supervisors, who have an impact on workplace climate by modeling expectations in behavior.
With a Little Practice/Guidance, Your Workplace Can Get This Right
Speaking up about inappropriate conduct in the workplace can have an outsized effect on workplace climate, and certainly on the colleagues who hear you take a stand. There’s a profound moment in bystander intervention trainings when participants realize that there is a specific action they can take to support their colleagues and change their work environment. As one participant recently put it, “I will practice being a better ally and bystander. I will try harder to be brave and call-out bad behavior. . .and also  avoid [inappropriate] responses I may be inclined to say myself.” Individual commitments like that one can go a long way towards changing workplace climate for the better.
Audrey Roofeh is the CEO of Mariana Strategies LLC, a workplace culture consulting firm based in Washington, DC.
 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018), https://doi.org/10.17226/24994 (citing Willness, C. R., Steel, P., and Lee, K., A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment. (2007), Personnel Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2007.00067.x.)
 Written Testimony of Mindy E. Bergman, Workplace Harassment: Examining the Scope of the Problem and Potential Solutions, Meeting of the E.E.O.C. Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (June 15, 2015), https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/testimony_bergman.cfm. (citing work of Charles A. O’Reilly & Jennifer A. Chatman, Culture as Social Control: Corporations, Cults, and Commitment, 18 Organizational Behav. 157 (1996)).
 NASEM, supra, note 1.
 NASEM, supra, note 1.
 NASEM, supra, note 1.
 EEOC, Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace Report of Co-Chairs Chai R. Feldblum & Victoria A. Lipnic, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/report.cfm