That’s the simple question at the heart of a recent research analysis by Debbie S. Dougherty for the Harvard Business Review. Dougherty, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri, is interested in the link between sexual harassment policies and real-world outcomes—specifically, whether policies do enough to stop “the problem they were designed to address.”
The issue, she argues, is culture: each workplace’s individual culture, and the larger, national culture in which we’re all embedded. Research demonstrates, first, that sexual harassment is symptomatic of (and inseparable from) organizational culture; second, that we live in a society that has historically values men and masculinity above women, and therefore frequently disregards women’s testimonies and even “blames” women for the harassment they experience.
Doughtery, along with her colleague Marlo Goldstein Hode, asked a couple dozen employees of a large government organization to read and report back on a sexual harassment policy. What the professors discovered was that, weighed down by all of our cultural baggage, policies get miscommunicated and misinterpreted (emphasis added):
We found that the actual words of the sexual harassment policy bore little resemblance to the employees’ interpretations of the policy. Although the policy clearly focused on behaviors of sexual harassment, the participants almost universally claimed that the policy focused on perceptions of behaviors. Moreover, although the policy itself made clear that harassing behaviors were harassment regardless of either the gender or sexual orientation of the perpetrator or target, the employees focused almost exclusively on male-female heterosexual harassment. This shift is subtle but significant. For the participants, the policy was perceived as threatening, because any behavior could be sexual harassment if an irrational (typically female) employee perceived it as such. In this somewhat paranoid scenario, a simple touch on the arm or a nonsexual comment on appearance (“I like your hairstyle”) could subject “innocent” employees (usually heterosexual males) to persecution as stipulated by the policy. As a result, the organization’s sexual harassment policy was perceived as both highly irrational and as targeting heterosexual male employees. The employees shifted the meaning of the policy such that female targets of sexual harassment were framed as the perpetrators and male perpetrators were framed as innocent victims.
To accomplish this shift in meaning, the employees drew on assumptions of women being irrational and highly emotional and on assumptions of men being rational and competent. Through this intertwining of organizational policy, organizational culture, and national culture, the employees inverted the meaning of the sexual harassment policy, making it an ineffective tool in the fight against predatory sexual behavior in the workplace.
The article goes on to offer a couple tips for writing effective sexual harassment policies, such as by including “culturally appropriate, emotion-laden language” and mandating that bystanders respond to any and all predatory sexual behavior they witness. Give it a read at hbr.org.
In light of harassment at Uber, Fox News, and other major US organizations, we’ve discussed the issue at length on this blog and in recent webinars. If you’ve found value in our content, consider Doughtery’s article required reading. We especially appreciated this quote, which applies to all kinds of workplace policies, from the piece:
“Remember that sexual harassment policies are not just legal documents. They are also culturally important, meaning-making documents that should play a role in defining, preventing, and stopping sexual harassment in an organization.”
Makes you remember why you chose a career in compliance, doesn’t it?