Why Sexual Harassment at Work is a Culture Issue

Jun 24, 2019 3:30:00 PM / by Debbie Shotwell

Debbie ShotwellWhen I was 16 years old, I went to work for my dad, a mechanic who owned his own business. His workforce was primarily men, and I immediately noticed the types of conversations his employees had, the suggestive calendars they hung on the walls, and other behaviors that were off-putting – especially to a young woman like myself. But I’ve never been one to back down from what I feel is the right thing to do. I had no qualms in telling them to take down their calendars and watch their language. My dad was surprised that I so easily stood up to them, but he also knew I stood up for what I believed in. He readily backed me up and their behaviors changed.

Join Debbie at HR Tech 2019!


That early experience set me up for a successful career in HR, where being direct, inclusive and supportive of others is critical to organizational success. But not everyone is fortunate enough to work for someone like my dad, who recognized the culture in his shop was problematic because it wasn’t inclusive and supported me in changing it.

However, we’ve entered a new era.  An era where the need to identify and root out sexual harassment culture, in all its forms, has never been so immediate and wide-ranging. That goes for all work environments: whether that be a garage, office, retail storefront or movie set. Individuals, teams and organizations are stepping up to drive cultural change and address the widespread problem of sexual harassment in daily life and work. From the #MeTooMovement to innovations in HR technology, the workplace is now rife with opportunities for thoughtful progress to create a dignified work environment for everyone.

HR Professionals Are Leading the Charge to Diagnose and Heal Workplace Culture

“Harassment is a symptom of an abuse of power,” says employment attorney and HR Tech speaker, Heather Bussing. The good news is that HR is uniquely situated to lead the charge in effectively identifying and addressing the underlying issues of power and culture. According to a 2018 poll by Berlin Cameron/Harris , 57 percent of individuals believe changes should come from HR being more proactive and responsive. HR can look to the recent advances in talent management solutions which offer more concrete data and solid strategies, this will help them lead their organizations in supporting a safer, more inclusive workplace.

Embrace data as your friend: People are often embarrassed or nervous to come forward and report any kind of workplace harassment. They fear the process and potential repercussions. So how can you proceed? Before you can start to shift mindsets about harassment, you need to know where it's happening. You already have high-level data like attrition complaints, absences and gender ratios. Don’t just collect it – analyze the data for patterns; drill down into which departments and teams are most affected.

Anonymous pulse surveys are also particularly useful. Questions can be asked in a way that could reveal potential issues or hotspots without asking outright if people have been harassed. Pulse survey questions about how the individual feels about themselves, their leaders and the organization are a great starting point. Managers can also leverage similar conversation-starter questions in their one-on-one meetings with employees, make note of their responses and bring them to HR’s attention, if necessary. This allows the organization to dive even deeper to extract more qualitative data to compare and contrast with quantitative data.

Extract unconscious bias: One of the biggest challenges in creating a harassment-free culture is trying to build on an unfavorable foundation, which can come in the form of unconscious bias. Although it’s an unconscious behavior, it still inflicts harm within the workplace. The best way to deconstruct unconscious bias is through education – both formal and informal. You or your employees can create lightweight learning paths of user-curated content collections to share resources that can help shift mindsets.

Cultivating a culture of awareness, empathy, and “if you see something, say something,” makes it an inhospitable environment for would-be harassers. I’ve seen this play out in a past organization where a problematic new hire, an executive, left the company within three months because we had a zero-tolerance harassment policy, including more nuanced toxicity triggers such as quid pro quo offers. Reinforce your organization’s positive cultural values through personalized learning content that is tailored to the individual’s situation or role in addition to thoughtful sexual harassment training.

Analyze power dynamics: Identify patterns in who owns power. Many organizations will discover some revealing patterns when conducting an analysis. By more evenly distributing power based on gender, age and race, rates of harassment can be reduced dramatically. And hey, this doesn't just apply to current leaders. It applies to your future leaders as well.

“We need to keep the power dynamics in mind when evaluating how severe it is, and who we’re going to believe,” Bussing says. She adds that it’s critical to protect witnesses and bystanders, as they are also victims of sexual harassment.

Sexual Harassment is a Workplace Culture Issue

Thoughtfully addressing a culture of harassment can be daunting. It takes proactive measures and a willingness for leaders to step up and do the right thing. My dad may not have realized it at the time, but by supporting me when I stood up for a better workplace environment, it didn’t make the workplace better just for me. It became better for everyone.

A more proactive approach to understanding, preventing and addressing sexual harassment is every leader’s responsibility. It’s also HR’s responsibility to acknowledge organizational reality and take the necessary next steps.

“Acceptance [of reality] and starting where you are,” Bussing says. “That’s what moves a culture.”


About Debbie Shotwell:

As the Chief People Officer of Saba Software, Debbie Shotwell is responsible for human resources, learning and development, employee communications and community relations.

Debbie brings more than 25 years of passion and experience building high-performance teams and cultures that deliver results. She is a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP), a member of the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) and has been featured on Inc.com, Forbes and the SHRM blog. She's the recipient of the National Association of Professional Women's Humanitarian Award, and has served on the board of directors of Pleasanton Partners in Education and 101 Best and Brightest.

Before joining Saba, Debbie was the Senior Vice President of People and Culture at BigCommerce, where she built an innovative learning and development function that supported employee, leadership and strategic partner training. Her success in this capacity led to BigCommerce being recognized as one of San Francisco Bay Area's Best and Brightest Companies to Work For, one of Austin's Top Workplaces and one of the Best Places to Work in Australia.

Prior to her work at BigCommerce, Debbie was Chief People Officer at Good Technology where she implemented talent programs that increased employee engagement and reduced turnover. Additionally, Debbie has held executive HR leadership positions at Pacific Pulmonary Services, Taleo, PeopleSoft and AvalonBay.


Join Debbie at HR Tech 2019!



Topics: sexual harassment, work culture, workplace environment

Debbie Shotwell

Written by Debbie Shotwell

Lists by Topic

see all

Posts by Topic

See all

Recent Posts

LinkedIn   Twitter   Facebook   YouTube    Instagram


1-800-727-1227   |    conferences@lrp.com

© 2021 LRP Publications | Produced by Human Resource Executive® Magazine and LRP Publications