Workplace Harassment: Why Women Don’t Speak Up

March 26, 2019

This article was originally published on October 30, 2018 at Forbes.com. The original article can be found here.

Why don’t women speak up? It’s the question I’m asked most regarding workplace harassment by leaders, particularly entrepreneurs (including men) who are, at the very least, looking to make a difference in their organizations. These are people who care deeply about making their workplaces establishments where people of all backgrounds can feel safe and thrive, while ensuring something like harassment doesn’t destroy their company’s potential. They just don’t know where to start.

Obviously, there isn’t a simple answer. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an estimated 75% of individuals who get harassed at work don’t file a complaint. The most often cited reasons include not wanting to be seen as a victim or attention-seeker, the humiliation, the time it will likely take including follow through, fear of negative consequences like being alienated or fired and being blamed as the victim.

In the field of design and innovation, if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that data is extremely valuable and provides the intellectual answers to what the problem is and perhaps why it’s happening — but it isn’t always enough to motivate people to design a better solution. Empathy, curiosity and even anger, however, can give us a better shot at getting real change to happen.

According to a study by the University of Missouri-Columbia, 98% of all organizations have sexual harassment policies in place, but sexual harassment in the workplace remains an issue. Through our own research, we have heard disturbing incidents across industries. One woman revealed, “An officer at work cornered me, then pinned me against a wall in a stairwell and told me exactly what I could do for him to get a promotion. Then he tried kissing me.” And we know that the repercussions are immense when there is a history of workplace sexual harassment, which, according to a recent study, can lead to poor sleep and an increased risk of developing high blood pressure.

But not all workplace harassment is sexual in nature. Some disturbing stories reveal a gang mentality, with groups (including HR) conspiring together to alienate others. And some have nothing to do with gender. One woman revealed her harassment was rooted in a cruel abuse of power: “A lady put duct tape over my mouth. I am visually impaired and didn’t see her coming, so I couldn’t block her.”

These behaviors are happening all around us, and not enough is being done. But by sharing these scenarios of harassment, we can shine a light on the severity of the problem and the impact our inaction is having on an entire generation of younger women entering the workforce. When we can create an empathetic connection to their experiences and feel the disgust around this problem, it can create not just a want but a need to do something about it.

The larger question around workplace harassment is why women don’t go to HR to report incidents and issues. Our research found that the answers cluster around four main themes:

  1. They don’t trust HR because HR doesn’t work for them; they work for management   and often report to the abuser.
  2. They have something big to lose. They believe reporting is sure to prevent them achieving their career goals and can’t afford to lose their job/income.
  3. The problem is rooted in company culture. When many founders and CEOs exhibit inappropriate behavior, victims assume or are told it is normal.
  4. HR is the problem. Those who do report incidents to HR are turned away or told they are overreacting, thus ensuring they won’t report further incidents.

So, now what?

It can be hard to know where to begin with findings like these. In design thinking, it often begins with a “how might we …” conversation and ideation session, which I encourage you to have in your organization.

Part of finding the right solutions is asking the right questions. While it might be advantageous to ask, “How might we hear the stories happening within our organization’s walls and better understand the challenges that exist for women?” we know that women are already suffering from abuse within organizations. Finding a question that is more specific like, “How might we not just say we care through policy and documentation, but show we care through action?” can begin to facilitate real, focused change.

“What if” questions go one step further in encouraging your teams to ideate on solutions that work within your culture. Building off of the above example, ask:

  • What if you paid bonuses to HR for encouraging victims to report incidents of abuse, and for sharing those reports with stakeholders?
  • What if you contracted an independent study by an outside research firm to understand the struggles of your employees?
  • What if you paid a former employee to do an explicit exit interview and reveal what others who have their employment at stake may be too afraid to share?
  • What if you set up interviews with former and/or current employees anonymously through the use of burner phones or an untraceable hotline?
  • What if you stopped using the word harassment and began asking questions around value (i.e., when did you not feel valued and protected here)?
  • What if you did an HR swap (à la Wife Swap) and received a different perspective and recommendations from those with no stake in your organization?

If you’re not asking these questions, please start. Encourage conversation and see what percentage of that 75% come forward with something they’ve been wanting to share with you. Recognize that the problem exists and that getting to the truth will require a process, and then be uncompromising in trying solutions to solve for it.

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