With workplace sexual harassment continuing to be a high-profile, hotly debated issue, the results of a new survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) will come as a surprise to many people. The national conversation about what is appropriate workplace behavior has apparently not resulted in new policy changes at many companies.
The APA poll found that only 32 percent of working Americans said that their employer has taken new steps to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace. Some 18 percent said the most common action taken was simply reminding employees of existing sexual harassment training or resources.
Workplace Sexual Harassment: Are Employers Actually Responding? (PDF, 778KB) from APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence was conducted online by Harris Poll from Feb. 15-March 1, 2018, among 1,512 U.S. adults who are employed full-time, part-time or self-employed. The data were collected as part of APA’s 2018 Work and Well-Being Survey.
Avoiding the issue
While the lack of meaningful change is not entirely surprising, it is disappointing, said David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, director of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.
“The #MeToo movement has given business leaders an opportunity to finally take real action addressing a complex problem that has been pervasive for generations,” Ballard said. “Our survey — as well as anecdotal reports — shows that too few employers are making comprehensive efforts that can have significant impact. Avoiding the issue is bad for employee well-being and business, but so, too, is a narrow, compliance-based approach. We know from psychological science that relying solely on mandated training designed primarily to limit the organization’s legal liability is unlikely to be effective.”
Only 10 percent of U.S. workers said their employer has added more training or resources related to sexual harassment since the recent increased media and public attention on this serious workplace problem. Just 8 percent said their employer implemented a more stringent policy related to sexual harassment, and only 7 percent reported that their employer hosted an all-staff meeting or town hall to discuss sexual harassment.
What does and doesn't work
Research has shown training to recognize and report sexual harassment isn’t enough to change employee behavior or a workplace culture where harassment is more likely to occur. Instead, psychologists recommend a comprehensive approach that incorporates fair policies that are clearly communicated, ongoing training, leadership support of a civil and respectful culture, and the hiring and promotion of women into senior leadership roles.
The survey showed the difference when women have representation in upper management. Employees in organizations that have women in senior leadership roles said they were more likely to report sexual harassment at work if they experienced it (56 percent) or witnessed it (55 percent), and confront a coworker who is engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior at work (53 percent), compared with employees in organizations that don’t have women in senior leadership roles (39 percent, 41 percent and 34 percent, respectively).
The survey also found links between increased efforts to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment and better employee and organizational outcomes more broadly. When new steps had been taken, employees were more likely to say they were in good psychological health (90 percent vs. 79 percent) and that their employer provides the necessary resources to help employees meet their mental health needs (76 percent vs. 36 percent) and manage their stress (63 percent vs. 31 percent). They also reported higher job satisfaction (86 percent vs. 60 percent) and motivation to do their best at work (89 percent vs. 64 percent) and were more likely to say they’d recommend their organization as a good place to work (79 percent vs. 51 percent), than those who said their employer had not taken any new steps.
Culture of civility is key
“Sexual harassment at work occurs within a broader context,” Ballard said. “For training to produce long-term changes, the organization’s workplace practices need to align with and support the individual attitudes and behaviors it’s trying to promote. Leaders in a psychologically healthy workplace model civility, respect, fairness and trust. In an organizational culture where every employee feels safe, supported and included, people can be their best, and that’s good for people and profits.”
While most employers have been slow in taking new steps to address harassment, the ongoing headlines and resulting conversations may be encouraging individual employees to take action. About half of U.S. workers say they are now more likely to report workplace sexual harassment if they experience it (50 percent) or witness it (51 percent), and that they are more likely to confront a coworker who is engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior at work (47 percent).
About the Center for Organizational Excellence
APA's Center for Organizational Excellence works to enhance the functioning of individuals, groups, organizations and communities through the application of psychology to a broad range of workplace issues. The center houses the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, a public education initiative designed to engage the employer community, raise public awareness about the value psychology brings to the workplace and promote programs and policies that enhance employee well-being and organizational performance.
About the survey
The survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association between Feb. 15-March 1, 2018, among a nationally representative sample of 1,512 adults age 18 and older who reside in the U.S. and were employed full time, part time or self-employed. Data are weighted where necessary to bring them in line with their actual proportions in the population. A full methodology is available upon request.
About The Harris Poll
The Harris Poll is one of the longest running surveys in the U.S. tracking public opinion, motivations and social sentiment since 1963 that is now part of Harris Insights & Analytics, a global consulting and market research firm that delivers social intelligence for transformational times.
The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes nearly 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students.
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