One general truth about workplace harassment goes like this: it’s not what you mean by what you say or do, but how the other person perceives it.
Imagine a manager—let’s call him Omar—tells an off-color joke to Sally, one of his direct reports. Sally swiftly reports the incident to HR. In the ensuing disciplinary meeting, Omar clarifies that he didn’t intend to offend or hit on his team member. “It was just a dumb joke I read online,” he says. The HR officer makes a note, and ends the meeting.
Omar believes he might be off the hook. But the investigation proceeds, and two days later, the organization terminates him. Why? Because Omar’s intentions don’t change what Sally experienced in the moment. The company has decided that giving Omar a pass isn’t worth the damage to organizational culture, as well as potential legal risk. To borrow some words from the US Army: “It is not the intent, but is the perception and impact which determines whether or not an act is sexual harassment.”
And we’re not only talking about Sally’s perception. Imagine that the employer in this case is a Fortune 500 company with an enormous public profile, and that Sally writes about the incident in a blog post that goes viral. If Sally and Omar’s employer refuses to take action, what might the company lose in terms of consumer sentiment and brand reputation?
A recent study by researchers at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and the University of Amsterdam explores this very question. The study contrasted individuals’ perceptions of three kinds of organizations: A) those with no reported issues, B) those where an employee had filed a harassment claim, and C) those where an employee had filed a financial misconduct claim.
It turns out that organizations in category B had the most work to do to win back public trust. The researchers, who wrote about their findings in the Harvard Business Review, discovered that “a single sexual harassment claim can dramatically reduce public perceptions of an entire organization’s gender equity,” and that “people see a sexual harassment claim as more indicative of a culture problem than a bad apple problem.”
“We found that when people learn that a sexual harassment claim has been made in an organization, they not only see that organization as less equitable than an organization where no such claim was filed, but also less equitable than an organization where a claim of a different transgression, such as financial misconduct, was made. Expanding the latter finding, we also find that people see a sexual harassment claim as more indicative of a culture problem than a bad apple problem—even compared to a claim of fraud.”
Of course, most employers would prefer to never need to worry about repairing their public image—or, for that matter, firing a manager over a boneheaded comment—in the first place. With the right anti-harassment approach, you can ensure your reputation remains positive while keeping managers like Omar and employees like Sally happy and productive at work.