Workplace harassment can take an unfortunately long time to address. Unlike, say, an injury or theft, an instance of harassment may only come to light months or years after the fact. Indeed, among the many news stories about harassment currently circulating through the media are accounts that date back decades. Consider for instance the women who waited nearly 40 years to accuse former Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual assault and misconduct.
Psychologists have identified numerous reasons why a person may delay reporting their harassment (or decline to report it all). Victims of harassment may suffer from low self-esteem, or feel ashamed, helpless, or embarrassed about their experiences. They may fear negative consequences or retaliation at the hands of their harassers or those perceived to be protecting the harassers. They may doubt their own memories or dissociate from them—until, sometimes, the experiences and feelings suddenly resurface.
It’s for these reasons that workplaces seeking to address harassment need to take several steps back and diagnose the issue through the lens of organizational culture. Preventing harassment isn’t just a question of when and where, but how and why.
Naturally, “who” seems like the next logical question—that is: Who is most likely to harass others at work? Is there a particular behavior or set of behaviors that offenders share? A number of researchers have examined this line of inquiry, with some even developing tests such as a “Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale.”
But as we’ve written before, sexual harassment is only one type of harassment. A single standard based on an individual’s personality doesn’t account for the various forms harassment takes.
Moreover, as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can tell you, it’s organizational conditions—and not the actions or characteristics of lone individuals—that are “the most powerful predictors of whether harassment will happen.” That’s why, in the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace June 2017 Report, the EEOC “decided to focus instead on a number of environmental risk factors—organizational factors or conditions that may increase the likelihood of harassment.”
Last week, we covered the various kinds of harassment the EEOC defined in its report (to read our previous article, click here). This week, we’re going to take a closer look at the risk factors for harassment: the early signals, warning signs, and implicit cultural messages that indicate a high probability for discriminatory conduct in the workplace—before a claim or lawsuit gets filed.
The following is a list of those of risk factors, as provided by the EEOC. As you read through, keep the Commission’s caveats in mind:
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“Most if not every workplace will contain at least some of the risk factors we describe below. In that light, to be clear, we note that the existence of risk factors in a workplace does not mean that harassment is occurring in that workplace. Rather, the presence of one or more risk factors suggests that there may be fertile ground for harassment to occur, and that an employer may wish to pay extra attention in these situations, or at the very least be cognizant that certain risk factors may exist. Finally, we stress that the list below is neither exclusive nor exhaustive, but rather a number of factors we felt were readily identifiable.”
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Every employee deserves a work environment that is free of unlawful harassment. An anti-harassment initiative helps organizations share their views on harassment in the workplace and demonstrate the actions they will take to ensure all employees are held accountable for acting in line with those views.
But to develop an anti-harassment initiative, you need to know more than the general risk factors. Every organization has its own culture, compliance program, business model, and attending circumstances that may or may not encourage harassment. Based on the EEOC’s research, we’ve developed an assessment to help you identify your organization’s unique risk factors, and we can provide you a roadmap for taking proactive measures to reduce harassment in your organization.