Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date

2020

Center/Program

Center for Constitutional Governance

Center/Program

Center for Gender & Sexuality Law

Abstract

This article asks why it remains so difficult for employers to prevent and respond effectively to harassment, especially sexual harassment, and identifies promising points for legal intervention. It is sobering to consider social-science evidence of the myriad barriers to reporting sexual harassment – from the individual-level and interpersonal to those rooted in society at large. Most of these are out of reach for an employer but workplace culture stands out as a significant arena where employers have influence on whether harassment and other discriminatory behaviors are likely to thrive. Yet employers typically make choices in this area with attention to legal accountability rather than cultural contribution. My central claim is that these judgment calls – about policy, procedures, training, and operations – shape workplace culture and that it is a mistake to view them only through a compliance lens. With this insight, it becomes clear that each of these will be more effective in shaping culture when the employee user-experience is a focal point, and this article suggests many ways to achieve this result.

By seeing harassment prevention and response as an opportunity for culture creation in addition to being a compliance obligation, it also becomes clear that harassing behavior may negatively affect the targeted employee and the broader workplace even when there is no risk of liability. This includes “lowgrade harassment,” a category I use to describe behaviors that are intentionally harassing but not severe or pervasive enough to meet doctrinal thresholds. Also relevant are microaggressions and interactions that reflect implicit bias, as these are unlikely to expose a firm to liability because they lack the discriminatory intent required by legal doctrine but nonetheless can create significant challenges for employees and organizations. This is not to suggest that employers should respond in an identical way to all of these occurrences. Rather, the point is that inattention to experiences that go beyond legal-accountability requirements is likely to spill over into the broader workplace culture and diminish the effectiveness of other harassment prevention and response efforts.

The good news is that there are specific steps an employer can take to have harassment prevention and response become part of the workplace culture rather than being sidelined as compliance. Thoughtfully crafted legislative and policy interventions, along with litigation settlements, also can bridge this gap and create a more seamless set of cultural expectations for how employees interact with each other at work and what they can expect from their employer when challenges arise.

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