How to Finally Stop Sexual Harassment at Work

Turning a blind eye could be hurting your company.

learn more about Jessica Higgins

By Jessica Higgins

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Whether it's in the White House, the board room or any company in America, sexual harassment is the dark reality that has faced us forever as women. We are just now feeling permission to discuss the issue. Men, it's real. Please don't minimize it. Here's one compelling reason:

Sexual harassment is costing your business a lot.

Forget the human side for a second and focus on the economic gains. If your workforce were created, trained, promoted and treated equally, your workforce engagement and productivity would improve by dramatically. That's greater revenue, greater productivity and greater innovation. In fact, researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that organizations with even a single female board member or executive member showed 15 percent more productivity than their all male competitors.

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

Without changing a single thing inside of your business, you can increase your profitability. Simply bring women to the table. No new processes, new procedures or new gadgets needed. Workforce equity is a profitable venture. And that's not even including the reduction in legal fees. Here's why:

The women sitting in your business today have earned over half of all graduate degrees, but hold only 14 percent of all leadership positions. Perceived fairness is a huge driver of a company's engagement and productivity. If your corporate culture would actually hire, train and promote fairly, that's an instant 40 percent improvement in your human capital. Not only would you increase revenue and productivity by capitalizing on your existing talent, you would create a culture that great people want to be a part of.

So, how do you make this switch-over to a better business? It's easier than you think.

Forget about policies. Focus on people.

The famous artifact that survived the downfall of Enron: the company's core values. As recently as last month, media have reported on Enron's core values: communication, respect, integrity. This is a warning signal to most businesses out there. If you aren't what you state you are as a company, then what are you? The truth lies in your corporate culture -- how people behave in the absence of rules, and when they believe no one is watching.

Related: A Step-by-Step Guide to Responding to Allegations of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

This was Enron's problem. Ditto for every company with harassment happening right now. Twenty-seven percent of women report harassment in the workplace, and that's not accounting for the unreported harassment. Given that 75 percent of all victims experience retaliation for reporting, the chances are pretty good that harassment is happening a lot more frequently than we think. Both the problem and the solution to harassment rest in your corporate culture.

But how do you change culture? Sure, criminalizing behavior is one way of shifting culture. But a slew of HR folks catching individual acts of bad behavior is expensive and un-scalable. On the other hand, shifting your cultural norms is powerfully effective.

Stop writing more and more policies, and start paying attention to people. People want to be part of the group, and will follow social norms at great cost. Leaders must decide, and then follow through. Make gender equity a part of your daily conversation; empower people to hold equity accountable. Make it a fundamental. Lead with equity. Be sure it's not only stated, but that it filters through meetings and informal interactions.

As a leader, choose to communicate fairness with transparency. Otherwise, just know that the cultural norms are shifting outside of your business. Eventually you'll get left being one of those bad places to work for that everyone talks about.

Related: These Companies Are Battling Sexual Harassment By Teaching Employees to Recognize Unconscious Bias

Don't mind the gap. Bridge it.

A very famous entrepreneur once told me that she left her great executive role because, simply, "one woman standing in a room full of old white men wasn't going to do very much."

Diverse mindsets bring diverse perspectives. All great entrepreneurs know that the easiest way to innovate is to bring together a group of people with diverse backgrounds. Ditto meetings, product development, marketing and every other area of your business. Think like an entrepreneur. Deliberately design roles, social constructs and, yes, even your leadership, for diversity.

If the brainstorm is 90/10 in any direction, you're not capitalizing much on the minority viewpoints. The same goes for everything else inside your business. Design it to enhance diversity. This includes at the golf course and happy hours.

Lead your company correctly, and the company will follow.

No single individual can prevent sexual harassment. The context of an organization, once defined, becomes the reality. While disconnected leaders are concerned with policies, great leaders are leading with culture.

What transformational leadership really means is social contagion -- creating ideas so compelling that they spread, and then reinforcing them in the social spaces and environment.

If your executive suite agrees, and then leads the workplace, the workplace will follow. It starts with a vision, then becomes communication and is followed up with reinforcement through all levels, in the environment and social spaces.

Related: So, a Manager Just Pawed You. Or a Principal at Your Firm Made Lewd Remarks. Now, What?

Women need great leaders now.

The truth is, so few of us women are able to achieve any level of success. It's still a man's world in 2018. While it may be easy to give out our phone numbers at a networking event, fighting to be taken seriously is almost always a losing battle.

It's not just one company or another; it's our nation's culture. Men sexualize women everywhere, overtly and subversively. Whether it's at work or in the grocery store, our culture has modeled ugly behaviors that are terrorizing your wives and daughters in unacceptable ways.

If you hate watching this unfold as much as we do, help us. We promise to never turn the tables and make life unreasonably hard for you. In fact, what a woman uniquely brings to the table in empathy, mindset and skills can make the world a pretty awesome place. Calling all great men everywhere: We need your help.

Jessica Higgins

COO of Gapingvoid Culture Design Group

Jessica Higgins is an organizational culture design expert, author, public speaker and member of boards of directors in technology and the arts. She is the COO of Gapingvoid Culture Design Group, whose clients include Microsoft, Zappos, Roche, AT&T and many others. She lives in Miami, Fla.

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