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Harassment: Get to Know the Risk Factors for Your Workplace

workers talking about colleague walking past

Harassment: Get to Know the Risk Factors for Your Workplace

Workplace harassment can take an unfortunately long time to address. Unlike, say, an injury or theft, an instance of harassment may only come to light months or years after the fact. Indeed, among the many news stories about harassment currently circulating through the media are accounts that date back decades. Consider for instance the women who waited nearly 40 years to accuse former Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual assault and misconduct.

Psychologists have identified numerous reasons why a person may delay reporting their harassment (or decline to report it all). Victims of harassment may suffer from low self-esteem, or feel ashamed, helpless, or embarrassed about their experiences. They may fear negative consequences or retaliation at the hands of their harassers or those perceived to be protecting the harassers. They may doubt their own memories or dissociate from them—until, sometimes, the experiences and feelings suddenly resurface.

It’s for these reasons that workplaces seeking to address harassment need to take several steps back and diagnose the issue through the lens of organizational culture. Preventing harassment isn’t just a question of when and where, but how and why.

Naturally, “who” seems like the next logical question—that is: Who is most likely to harass others at work? Is there a particular behavior or set of behaviors that offenders share? A number of researchers have examined this line of inquiry, with some even developing tests such as a “Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale.”

But sexual harassment is only one type of harassment. A single standard based on an individual’s personality doesn’t account for the various forms harassment takes.

Moreover, as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can tell you, it’s organizational conditions—and not the actions or characteristics of lone individuals—that are “the most powerful predictors of whether harassment will happen.” That’s why, in the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace June 2017 Report, the EEOC “decided to focus instead on a number of environmental risk factors—organizational factors or conditions that may increase the likelihood of harassment.” Let’s  take a closer look at the risk factors for harassment: the early signals, warning signs, and implicit cultural messages that indicate a high probability for discriminatory conduct in the workplace—before a claim or lawsuit gets filed.

The following is a list of those of risk factors, as provided by the EEOC. As you read through, keep the Commission’s caveats in mind:

“Most if not every workplace will contain at least some of the risk factors we describe below. In that light, to be clear, we note that the existence of risk factors in a workplace does not mean that harassment is occurring in that workplace. Rather, the presence of one or more risk factors suggests that there may be fertile ground for harassment to occur, and that an employer may wish to pay extra attention in these situations, or at the very least be cognizant that certain risk factors may exist. Finally, we stress that the list below is neither exclusive nor exhaustive, but rather a number of factors we felt were readily identifiable.”

1. Homogeneity

What the risk looks like:
According to the EEOC,

“harassment is more likely to occur where there is a lack of diversity in the workplace.” In male-dominated or exclusively male-led workplaces, women are more likely to experience harassment based on their gender. The same is true for minorities in a cultural homogenous workplace, or for people over the age of 50 in a predominantly young workplace.

Per the EEOC:
“Workers with different demographic backgrounds than the majority of the workforce can feel isolated and may actually be, or at least appear to be, vulnerable to pressure from others. They may speak a different language, observe different customs, or simply interact in ways different from the majority. Conversely, workers in the majority might feel threatened by those they perceive as ‘different” or “other.’ They might be concerned that their jobs are at risk or that the culture of the workplace might change, or they may simply be uncomfortable around others who are not like them.”

How to address it:
Invest in diversity at all levels of the organization, especially among particularly homogeneous groups. Create opportunities for employees to get to know and learn from each other.

2. Unequally Applied Workplace Norms

What the risk looks like:
The EEOC writes that harassment is more likely to occur in workplaces in which there is significant pressure to conform to a certain standard or set of standards (e.g. in terms of appearance, demeanor, language, or ability):

Such workers might include, for example, a ‘feminine’ acting man in a predominantly male work environment that includes crude language and sexual banter, or a woman who challenges gender norms by being ‘tough enough’ to do a job in a traditionally male-dominated environment. Similarly, a worker with a manifest disability may engender harassment or ridicule for being perceived as ‘different,’ as might a worker in a ‘rough and tumble’ environment who for any number of reasons chooses not to participate in ‘raunchy’ banter.”

How to address it:
Create and enforce respectful workplace policies. Don’t let disrespectful jokes and comments “slide.” Make sure to involve members of leadership, and nail the tone at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom.

3. Cultural and Language Differences

What the risk looks like:
Although homogeneity can spur harassment, so can perceived differences between employees, or population of employees. Workplace diversity and inclusion efforts can sometimes have a rebound effect, in which groups experience cultural friction or lash out at one another. The EEOC finds cultural and language differences to be especially difficult “when there has been a recent influx of individuals with different cultures or nationalities into a workplace, or where a workplace contains significant ‘blocs’ of workers from different cultures.”

Misunderstandings may escalate into bullying and abuse:

“[D]ifferent cultural backgrounds may cause employees to be less aware of laws and workplace norms, which can affect both their behavior and their ability to recognize prohibited conduct. Workers who do not speak English may not know their rights, and may be more subject to exploitation. The Select Task Force heard testimony from one expert who discussed how language and linguistic characteristics can play a role in cases of harassment or discrimination.”

How to address it:
Once again, in a supervised setting, create opportunities for employees to interact and learn from one another. Make sure all employees, regardless of background, understand and follow the same rules and policies, and are equally rewarded and disciplined.

4. “Coarsened” Social Discourse Outside the Workplace

What the risk looks like:
What happens outside the workplace has a way of seeping into workplace conversation—and thus, workplace behavior. Social standards may change in response to newsmaking incendiary language or incidents of violence, especially if those words or events have been connected to a nation, culture, or religion. The EEOC cites the 9/11 attacks as an example, noting an “increase in workplace harassment based on religion and national origin” in the aftermath of the attacks.

How to address it:
Talk with leadership about current events early and often, and identify ways in which those events may negatively impact workforce relations. If and as appropriate, create channels for team members to openly and safely discuss what’s going on outside of the workplace.

5. A Workforce that Leans Young

What the risk looks like:
The EEOC writes that “[w]orkplaces with many teenagers and young adults may raise the risk for harassment.” Why? It’s not because of inherent differences between young people and other workers, but disparities in experience and expectations:

“Workers in their first or second jobs may be less aware of laws and workplace norms— i.e., what is and is not appropriate behavior in the workplace. Young workers who engage in harassment may lack the maturity to understand or care about consequences.Young workers who are the targets of harassment may lack the self-confidence to resist unwelcome overtures or challenge conduct that makes them uncomfortable. Finally, young workers who are in unskilled or precarious jobs may be more susceptible to being taken advantage of by coworkers or superiors, particularly those who may be older and more established in their positions.”

How to address it:
Educate prospective employees about harassment and respectful workplace policy before they enter the organization, e.g. during recruitment, orientation, and onboarding. The EEOC suggests that workplaces also “provide training on how to be a good supervisor when youth are promoted to supervisory positions.”

6. An Emphasis on “High Value” Employees

What the risk looks like:
Think about your organization’s most valuable team members: the award-winning executive, the moneymaking sales team, the brilliant developer… What would you do to keep these employees happy? The EEOC cautions you to set limits:

“[W]orkforces in which some employees are perceived to be particularly valuable to the employer … provide opportunities for harassment, since senior management may be reluctant to challenge the behavior of their high value employees, and 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.”

How to address it:
Apply workforce policy uniformly and consistently. Don’t let someone off with a warning if a “less valuable” employee in the same situation would have been disciplined further. Additionally—when appropriate—don’t sweep high-profile, harassment-related departures under the rug; instead, communicate why the individual had to leave the organization and reiterate the policy in question.

7. Significant Power Disparities

What the risk looks like:
“I was attracted to a writer I had power over because I was a showrunner and I knew enough to know that these feelings were bad news,” Dan Harmon, creator of Community and Rick and Morty, recently admitted in a statement about his harassment of a former employee. “I lied to myself the entire time about it. And I lost my job. I ruined my show. I betrayed the audience. I destroyed everything and I damaged her internal compass, and I moved on.”

Harmon is one of many high-profile figures to be accused of sexual harassment, but one of the few to acknowledge wrongdoing, and one of just a handful to comment on the influence of power. In the context of harassment, power is perhaps the broadest and most central risk factor, but also the most nebulous. Harassment can occur anywhere there’s an obvious boundary or tier differentiating employees’ responsibilities—e.g. the difference between a military commander and a private, or between a supervisor and line worker—but power disparities are frequently unwritten, assumed, and informal.

The key lies in perception—a high-ranking employee’s perception of what they’re “allowed” to do, and a low-ranking employee’s perception of what may happen to them if they report harassment:

“Low-status workers may be particularly susceptible to harassment, as high-status workers may feel emboldened to exploit them. Low-status workers may be less likely to understand internal complaint channels, and may also be particularly concerned about the ramifications of reporting harassment (e.g., retaliation or job loss). Undocumented workers may be especially vulnerable to exploitation or the fear of retaliation. Finally, research shows that when workplace power disparities are gendered (e.g., most of the support staff are women and most of the executives are men), more harassment may occur.”

How to address it:
Again, apply workforce policy uniformly and consistently, and don’t hide the facts of individuals’ behavior. Have controls and oversight in place to keep high-ranking employees accountable and, if possible, invest leadership development tools.

8. An Emphasis on Customer Service or Client Satisfaction

What the risk looks like:
Yes, almost every organization places a strong emphasis on customer service or satisfaction. The EEOC differentiates this risk factor by tying it, once again (noticing a pattern?), to material consequences:

“For example, a tipped worker may feel compelled to tolerate inappropriate and harassing behavior rather than suffer the financial loss of a good tip. A commissioned salesperson may stay silent in the face of harassment so as to ensure he or she makes the sale. Finally, in order to ensure customer happiness, management may, consciously or subconsciously, tolerate harassing behavior rather than intervene on the workers’ behalf.”

How to address it:
Per the EEOC: “Be wary of a ‘customer is always right’ mentality in terms of application to unwelcome conduct.” Use your policies to set boundaries between employees and customers/clients. Look for opportunities to build bonds between team members, away from customers/clients.

9. An Emphasis on Monotonous or “Busy” Work

What the risk looks like:
The EEOC reports that harassment may be more common in “workplaces where workers are engaged in monotonous or low-intensity tasks”:

“In jobs where workers are not actively engaged or have ‘time on their hands,’ harassing or bullying behavior may become a way to vent frustration or avoid boredom.”

A recent New York Times article documenting the experiences of women who faced harassment at Ford factories supports and develops this notion. Repetitive work may exacerbate—or provide the opportunity for—harassment. According to Ford employees interviewed for the piece, “[t]he very nature of factory work—the pressure to keep the production line going—gave bosses power to inflict petty humiliations, such as denying bathroom breaks.”

How to address it:
Reduce busy work whenever possible. Give employees different things to do at different times of the day, week, and year. Don’t saddle one employee or one group of employees with a massive workload. If appropriate, rotate employees between job roles.

10. Employee Isolation

What the risk looks like:
More employees occupying one room doesn’t necessarily equate to a higher likelihood of harassment in that room. The EEOC reports that harassment often happens “in isolated workspaces, where the workers are physically isolated or have few opportunities to work with others,” and where harassers “have easy access to such individuals, and there generally are no witnesses to the harassment.”

The EEOC’s examples of particularly vulnerable workers include “janitors working alone on the nightshift, housekeepers working in individual hotel rooms, and agricultural workers in the fields.”

How to address it:
Keep an eye out for circumstances and roles that isolate employees. The EEOC recommends “restructuring work environments and schedules to eliminate isolated conditions” if and when possible, ensuring that “workers in isolated work environments understand complaint procedures,” and that compliance and HR managers create opportunities for isolated workers to connect with each other (e.g., in person, online) to share concerns.”

11. Alcohol Consumption

What the risk looks like:
This one’s fairly obvious: alcohol increases impulsivity and clouds our judgment, and thus, “workplace cultures that tolerate alcohol consumption during and around work hours provide a greater opportunity for harassment.” That’s not all, though: “Workplaces where alcohol is consumed by clients or customers are also at higher risk of harassment.”

How to address it:
Reduce alcohol consumption on the job as much as possible, or keep it entirely off-hours and off-premises. When alcohol is present, make sure employees and managers know that workplace policies remain in place and that harassment will not be tolerated. Train members of the organization to recognize and respond to the signs of intoxication and alcohol-related misconduct. Pay attention to clients or customers who are consuming alcohol on premises, and intervene if they act inappropriately.

12. Decentralization

What the risk looks like:
Consider who or what holds your employees accountable, and whether those standards apply equally to all employees. Organizations with teams spread out across multiple locations or rooftops face a higher risk of harassment.

Here’s why:

“[In] enterprises where corporate offices are far removed physically and/or organizationally from front-line employees or first-line supervisors, or representatives of senior management are not present, some managers may feel (or may actually be) unaccountable for their behavior and may act outside the bounds of workplace rules. Others may simply be unaware of how to address workplace harassment issues, or for a variety of reasons may choose not to ‘call headquarters’ for direction.”

How to address it:
Apply the same workforce policies consistently across all locations. Use an automated workforce compliance management system, to distribute policies and training and track and score compliance throughout the organization. Have members of leadership regularly visit sites where the organization operates, and ensure that employees—wherever they’re located—can access and use a shared system of communication.

What’s Your Risk Profile? 
Every employee deserves a work environment that is free of unlawful harassment. An anti-harassment initiative helps organizations share their views on harassment in the workplace and demonstrate the actions they will take to ensure all employees are held accountable for acting in line with those views.

But to develop an anti-harassment initiative, you need to know more than the general risk factors. Every organization has its own culture, compliance program, business model, and attending circumstances that may or may not encourage harassment. Based on the EEOC’s research, we’ve  can provide you a roadmap for taking proactive measures to reduce harassment in your organization.

About The Author

Toby Graham

Toby manages the marketing communications team here at KPA. She's on a quest to help people tell clear, fun stories that their audience can relate to. She's a HUGE sugar junkie...and usually starts wandering the halls looking for cookies around 3pm daily.

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