Employee Feedback

When It Comes to Harassment, Workplace Silence Doesn't Mean Everything Is OK

You'll only know with a high degree of confidence that everything's good at your company if you measure and listen to employee perceptions.
When It Comes to Harassment, Workplace Silence Doesn't Mean Everything Is OK
Image credit: Image Group LA | Getty Images
Guest Writer
CEO and Founder, The Purposeful Culture Group
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In the last year, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have helped give a strong voice and support to those who've suffered sexual assault, harassment and bullying in workplaces at the hands of (usually white) men in power.

Related: Is 'That' Sexual Harassment? How to Tell, Using 'Cooper's 6 Levels.'

Last October, the “silence breakers” were recognized as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”   And just this week, 141 “sister survivors” stood on stage, representing more than 330 sexually abused gymnasts, after receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.

Workplace trauma like sexual assaults, harassment and bullyings occur far too frequently in workplaces around the globe. A 2018 study on sexual harassment and assault found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men surveyed had experienced some form of sexual assault and/or harassment in their lifetime. 

Sometimes these cases reveal strange cultural twists: In one recent instance, two civilian women reported harassment by a Marine major who, they said, had made sexual overtures on a number of occasions in 2013. The women didn’t make formal complaints at the time, they said, because they feared retaliation. Ironically, though, the division they all worked in designed and delivered sexual assault-prevention training for Marines. 

Alternately, breaking the silence has had positive results: It's raised society's awareness of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace and is bringing serial harassers to justice. In addition, these movements have generated more open conversations about what constitutes assault, harassment and bullying.

Related: Is It Sexual Harassment to Stare at Another Employee for More Than 5 Seconds?

These movements have also generated another frequent and unfortunate refrain, from leaders of organizations who have said, “We don’t have a problem here. No one is complaining. We’re good!”

The reality is that “no complaints” does not mean “no harassment.” 

If a company makes it difficult -- or impossible -- for assault, harassment or bullying to be reported in a safe environment, free from retaliation and likely to be investigated thoroughly, the number of complaints will be minuscule. That doesn’t mean that sexual assault or harassment or bullying isn’t happening; it means it’s not being reported.

If a company or its leaders retaliate against those who report these issues -- thus forcing them to continue working for the boss who harassed or bullied them -- the message is clear: “Don’t report harassment. It’ll only get worse for you if you do.”

Again, a low report rate doesn’t mean harassment or bullying isn’t happening.

Takeaway: The best organizations are those that ensure they’re getting accurate insights into the employee experience at their companies by doing two things -- measuring and listening.

Measure employee perceptions accurately and frequently.

Measurement happens with formal assessments and surveys. Frequent assessment means at least twice a year. Some of my clients are using pulse surveys, where one question is posed to every employee once a week. Response takes two minutes -- literally -- on smartphones and computers. Different questions are asked each week so a variety of data can be gathered in a very short time; and the result is high response rates, because the procedure is so fast and easy.

If you follow this path, make certain you’re getting accurate data. Use assessments that have been proven to be valid and reliable. That way, you can trust the accuracy of the data being reported. Creating survey questions from scratch may not provide accurate or actionable information.

And, once you gather survey data, promptly share the data you get back. Hiding this information does not build confidence in the company or its leadership. An example of the potential fallout? Twenty years ago, a global automobile company did a survey of company morale (which it did every other year).

The results came back with very low scores: low trust of senior leaders, low employee engagement, lack of respectful treatment across the organization and more. Instead of publishing the results and inviting conversations about how to improve the work environment, senior leaders chose to not share the results. For 18 months.

Employees knew full well that the work environment was unhealthy. They lived in it daily! And as a result of withholding the survey results, senior leaders lost a great deal of credibility. It took them years to gain that credibility back.

Takeaway: Open the kimono. Share the good survey results and the not-so-good ones. Celebrate what you’re doing right and revise systems, policies and procedures. That way, you can address hurdles or bad actors, to ensure workplace safety, sanity and civility for everyone.

Listen to understand -- frequently, and without defending yourself.

Being heard and having your experiences, successes and concerns validated is a powerful human need . Unfortunately, it’s a human need that is rarely satisfied in our fast-paced, digitized lives.

Authentic listening -- without defending themselves -- is what the best bosses do naturally. Leaders need to create safe avenues where team members can express their hopes, ideas, efforts, fears and even dreams without fear of ridicule.

Listening needs to happen in one-on-one meetings, informal connections, team meet-ups and the like, and it needs to happen often. If you have ten direct reports, you need to create safe, casual discussions with each of them at least once a week.

After all, you’re listening to learn. Don’t defend anyone’s behavior or even the company’s policies. Simply listen and ask how whatever is being discussed impacts the team member (for better or worse). Ask employees what they themselves would do to fix a problem or celebrate a success.

By engaging with team members, you’ll see themes emerge from their perspectives. You’ll learn about hurdles that inhibit progress or success, about team members or leaders that treat others badly and about successes that are being ignored and deserve recognition.

Listening helps you keep your finger on the pulse of how your team is operating. What you hear in these daily conversations should match up with the survey results you’re conducting. If they don’t match up, you’ll need to dig deeper to learn where the disconnects are, and attempt to address them as best you can.

Recognize that employee happiness matters.

By measuring employee perceptions and listening to employee concerns, you’re going to learn a lot about what’s working and what’s not working in your organization.

Translating what you learn into a more civil work experience is vitally important. People will believe that you not only ask for insights and concerns but you act on them.

Addressing issues will take time, energy and focus. Fixing stupid policies is usually easy. Fixing bad behavior -- sexual assault, harassment or bullying -- requires a greater investment. But one thing is certain: You can’t tolerate bad behavior anymore.

Employee happiness won’t happen by default. It only happens by design. Investing in a purposeful, positive, productive culture brings tremendous returns. TinyPULSE analyzed data from over 10,000 employees and discovered that happier employees:

  • Are more likely to continue working for the same organization
  • Are more likely to refer someone else to work for that organization
  • Feel more valued at work
  • Believe more strongly in their company’s future prospects
  • Are less likely to leave the organization for even a 10 percent raise

Related: How to Finally Stop Sexual Harassment at Work

Takeaway: Don’t accept silence and assume it means everything is OK. It might be OK -- but you’ll only know with a high degree of confidence if you measure and listen, to learn employee perceptions. Once you learn those perceptions, you'll be better able to address problems, leverage successes and validate employee experiences, every day.

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Employee Feedback Is Only Effective If It's Done Right. Here's How to Make Sure It Lands.