Every day, my 93-year-old mother asks me, “How’s your health?” And most days I say, “Fine, good!” But my answer is usually entirely based on my own perception of my health. I feel fine, nothing hurts, I don’t have any weird symptoms, so…I’m fine, right?

Of course, if I meant to give my mom an accurate assessment of my health, I would have to do more than make assumptions. I would see a doctor, have tests run, and find out if there are things going on beneath the surface that need my attention.

Drawing conclusions about whether your company has a sexual harassment problem based on assumptions, an absence of complaints, or your own experience as an employee, is just as superficial – and dangerous – as assuming you are healthy because you feel fine. In addition to all the other implications sexual harassment may have for your company and your workforce, depending upon where your company operates, it may also be illegal. In the United States, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates, among other laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But legalities aside, we all know that it’s just plain wrong.

Even if you believe that your corporate culture is strong, if you want to understand and positively influence your employees’ experience in this area, you have to proactively engage with them in a discussion about sexual harassment.

The challenge for compliance professionals when it comes to identifying and mitigating sexual harassment risk is that most employees work because they need the money. There is a logical tension between an employee’s need to keep his/her job and the company’s mandate for employees to speak up and report experienced or observed misconduct. Sexual harassment is so personal, insidious, and reprehensible as to be “unspeakable,” and thus, can and does go unreported.

Shining A Light on Open Secrets

The #MeToo Movement, as it is called, has shone a light on this particularly destructive type of workplace misconduct which has been “hiding in plain sight” in many parts of society for generations. This means that we cannot simply look at easily-available reporting metrics and trends to assess our company’s level of (in)tolerance for sexual harassment.

Television shows like Mad Men and movies have focused on, and even made light of, this topic (remember, 9 to 5 was a comedy). And sexual harassment and misconduct have been an openly ignored “secret” in nearly every industry and societal institution. Sometimes the misconduct was reported and ignored, or the complainant was demoted or dismissed. But it is likely that much of this behavior was tolerated by leaders and others, and simply not reported by those who experienced and/or observed it. They knew that they would be ignored, blamed, or punished for making these types of reports – especially if the allegations were made against powerful, successful, company leaders.

To combat this “culture of silence,” compliance professionals must take the responsibility for educating ourselves and our companies about how to identify and respond to sexual harassment. Get expert guidance when and as necessary, because you can’t diagnose the problem if you can’t recognize the symptoms. Remember that in our highly diverse workforces which, for many companies, span the globe, not everyone has the same frame of reference for what constitutes sexual harassment or intimidation. Generally, sexual harassment is defined as including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature – regardless of gender.

Workforce Surveys: A Vital Tool

Given the cultural moment, now is an ideal time to ask your colleagues direct questions about their experiences on the job, especially if you have never done so before. Should you choose to survey your workforce about sexual harassment, ask specific, sometimes uncomfortable, questions. Don’t worry that you might get responses that don’t add up to “legally prohibited” sexual harassment. All the feedback will help you to improve your company’s culture of ethical behavior. Just conducting the survey may have a positive effect on your workforce, although follow-up is essential. Give examples of the behaviors you hope not to find.

Don’t simply ask, “Have you observed or experienced behavior that you believe to be sexual harassment? If so, did you report it? If you did not report it, why not?” Ask the uncomfortable questions, giving general examples to spark conversation about what forms sexual harassment may take in your workplace. By doing so, you may help employees realize that behavior that had been tolerated was in fact inappropriate.

Ask: “Have you ever experienced or heard about a situation in our company where a supervisor threatened to fire, demote, or transfer an employee who refused to submit to sexual advances, or where a supervisor promised to promote an employee in exchange for sexual favors?”

Or ask: “Have you ever felt offended, uncomfortable, or intimidated because someone at work (another employee, a manager, even a customer or vendor) made offensive sexual comments or jokes, discussed sex, or displayed sexually oriented materials in your presence?”

As with other compliance issues, you want to elicit information that you can filter, assess, investigate, and act upon. Your employees don’t have to diagnose workplace sexual harassment, and they don’t need to understand its legal definitions and implications. They simply need to provide you with the information you need. Therefore, it is critically important to create safe opportunities for employees to speak up about sexual harassment now, even if they chose not to do so in the past. Taking swift and appropriate action to investigate and hold harassers accountable both rewards employees for speaking up now, and encourages people to know that they will be taken seriously if they speak up in the future

Supporting Each Other

There are many practical drivers for identifying and eliminating sexual harassment from our workplaces, including complying with the law, protecting the company’s reputation, credibility, stock price, and ability to execute on strategic goals. But our primary concern, based on shared corporate values, must be for our fellow employees. These behaviors directly and negatively impact employees’ daily lives, both on and off the job. Our collective safety, physical and psychological wellbeing, and, frankly, our ability to be thrive and effectively perform our job duties, depend upon our willingness to support one another by reporting and working to eradicate these abhorrent behaviors from our workplaces and our society.


About the Author:

Hope Scott is Vice President, Chief Risk & Compliance Officer for Blue Shield of California (“BSC”). With 29 years of legal practice experience in the fields of health care and privacy law, Hope leads and oversees the operations of BSC’s Corporate Integrity & Risk Management organization within the BSC Law Department. This includes oversight of the company’s Corporate Compliance & Ethics, Enterprise Risk Management, Medicare Compliance, and Privacy programs.