As we return to our offices in this “post-pandemic life”, our workplaces are fundamentally different. With the emergence of remote working, and the shared experience of a pandemic, we are seeing that individual attitudes towards work have shifted with the Great Resignation. The emergence of the layered workforce ensures that we may be growing more accustomed to working across a mix of employee types and compensation structures as more contract and full-time employees mix to meet the changing needs of the workforce.
For many, this means that they may never receive training regarding sexual harassment prevention and what’s appropriate in the workplace and its unique culture. Even as I continue to freelance at ad agencies, rarely do I ever receive guidance around employee conduct and expectations based on the company culture. I was once required to complete the standard self-guided training, but received little information about the company’s values and how they intentionally look to build a culture of safety. It truly felt as if they were simply “checking the box.”
Even as many companies have shifted to remote or flex working environments, sexual harassment continues. According to the 2021 State of Sexual Harassment study, 14% of respondents experienced sexual harassment within the last 12 months, during the pandemic. In Zoe Scaman’s recent post, “Mad Men. Furious Women,” she writes:
“During lockdown, whilst the physical walls closed in on us, for many women, the internal walls came crumbling down. In a state of loneliness, desperation and weariness, we began once again to share with one another, to seek solace and support, when the bad behaviour we were often subjected to in the office became magnified and even more marked. Those who felt talked over in meeting rooms, were silenced entirely over zoom. Those who had to push for their ideas to be valued and validated, were now openly sidelined and shut down. Those who managed to avoid their abusers in person, were now forced to welcome them into their private spaces, as they stared back at them through video calls.”
Employees are growing tired of companies doing the bare minimum regarding equity and employee safety. This past July, we saw employees of Activision threaten strike for their “tone deaf” response to sexual harassment allegations. As in the many examples we’ve seen of a public call-out, the company or individual itself often claims that the allegations are false and that the facts reported are somehow distorted. We see most often that HR as an entity is there to protect the company, and not what may be in the best interest for the one who experienced the harassment.
The antidote to this poison is creating and cultivating a company culture of respect — both for the individual and for each other. Culture is built over time and with shared knowledge and celebration of values, rites and ethos. It starts from the top down and is supported and strengthened by each and every individual employee. Regardless of where they are in the hierarchy, every employee needs to know that they play an integral role in the safety, security and prosperity of every other. This means that each employee knows and understands the values and beliefs that drive the company culture forward while keeping everyone safe.
As workers may be coming back into the office, and flex and remote work continue, it’s not too late to ensure tools and information are updated to support the cultivation of a culture of respect that is free from harassment of all kinds.
Welcome Onboarding – As you welcome both new full-time and contract employees, ensure language is updated and reflective of the workforce and any evolved values and expectations for employees. Let all new employees know how you keep the workforce safe, and how they can play an active role in supporting employee safety – physical, mental, and emotional.
Harm-Reduction Policies – It’s naïve to think that sex and relationships won’t happen in your workplace. 58% of employees noted that they’ve had a sexual relationship with a coworker at some point in their career. While policies can deter this behavior, it’s important that employees feel confident in navigating relationships of all kinds with a basic understanding of consent, with the ability to say no, and to have this “no” heard and respected, regardless of the power dynamic.
Accountability Processes – Know and honor that people are human, make mistakes, and can be open to changing. We do this by ensuring there is clarity around an accountability process to know and understand a path of consequences and restoration to good standing. This is done not to shame or judge the employee, but to build safety and clarity that can foster trust in the workforce.
Provide Avenues For Communication – According to the 2018 TimeTo study, 83% of people who experienced sexual harassment and/or assault in the place of work did not report it. The lack of reporting is often because the harassers and abusers were more senior and that HR is often there to protect the company, not its employees per se. Companies such as Hiboo are offering new tools that allow for employees to anonymously report instances of sexual harassment, which can bring attention to troublesome characters without the fear of retaliation.
The return to the office means more than the return to normalcy. It also signifies that the likelihood of sexual harassment will increase as there are more incidents on-site (20% experienced sexual harassment) compared to employees who worked remote through the pandemic (13%). For many, the return to the office also means the return of social hours lubricated with alcohol, employees that have only just begun to connect off-line, and plenty of open office space. We observe a direct correlation between an increase in sexual harassment and physical proximity.
Bringing awareness to these potentially problematic issues is your first line of defense against sexual harassment and assault. The return to the office represents and offers a fresh start and a new beginning. Employees want to know they are safe. Use this unique moment in time to reinforce the values your company holds true and build the culture that is a reflection of those values.