Where Change Happens: The Aftermath of Sexual Harassment

An employee works at her desk in Aurora, Colorado, on March 19, 2017.

When sexual harassment occurs, the effects can be devastating and far-reaching for everyone in the workplace. Often the immediate response, quite appropriately, focuses on what should be done to resolve the problem, which includes what actions are needed to protect and empower the survivor and to punish the perpetrator. But, that is only one aspect of the change that must take place.

Equally important is what happens in the wake of workplace sexual harassment—in the days, weeks, and months that follow—regardless of whether the survivor and perpetrator remain. The aftermath is a pivotal period that provides a crucial opportunity for change at a moment when workers are most likely to be watching and waiting. Achieving meaningful and enduring change does not happen by accident—it must be intentional, targeted, and unflinchingly impartial to ensure concrete progress can take root and grow. Any actions taken, or not taken, can send a message about an employer’s ability to pinpoint potential problems and take corrective action where needed; their willingness to engage in self-evaluation and critique; and a commitment to creating an environment where every worker can be successful, safe, and supported. In pursuing this type of comprehensive change, there must be a clear focus on several key priorities that follow.

Embracing survivors

It is critical to make survivors a top priority. No survivor of harassment should be made to feel guilty or blamed for doing what is right. Coming forward about harassment takes courage and involves risk. Survivors are keenly aware that they may not be believed, they could be criticized for any actions they did or did not take, and they could face a backlash from those upset about a change in workplace dynamics. Research shows that individuals who experience trauma such as sexual harassment may seem fine on the outside; they may say—and believe—that they are okay, even while they struggle to grasp what has happened. These feelings are not on a timetable and can last for days, weeks, months, or more; victims may also feel okay at first, but the trauma may surface months later. Even in situations where employers initially stumble because they assume a situation is resolved or do not recognize the lingering impact of harassment, it is essential to connect—or, in some instances, reconnect—with survivors to ensure that they feel supported, embraced, and confident that they can rely on the people around them as they move forward. Policies such as enabling survivors to take paid time off for recovery or providing access to ongoing counseling are crucial. At the same time, it is also important to create a sense of normalcy to ensure that the survivor feels included as part of the regular team order and is not isolated. If that support is lacking, then the hurt and anger caused by the original harassment can be compounded and actually worsen.

Understanding the damage

Self-examination and a careful assessment of the damage caused by harassment is central to being able to move forward—for survivors and co-workers, teams and departments, and workplaces. It is important to not assume that the damage is confined to the actual harassment itself or the individual people involved. The effects can manifest endless ways across an entire workplace, from lingering distrust among co-workers and managers; to ongoing recriminations about what actions were and were not taken; to lowered morale, an unwillingness to interact with certain teams or co-workers, and skepticism about the effectiveness of workplace policies. Co-workers, including managers and supervisors, may question whether they acted appropriately or whether they missed signs that they should have seen. For some employees, the fact that harassment occurred may trigger memories of prior trauma or similar personal experiences. All of these feelings are part of the damage left behind after harassment occurs. Assessing how to respond must be more than a top-down exercise: Enabling workers to participate in a process of self-evaluation and assessment can bring in fresh perspectives and create a sense of collective engagement and ownership of solutions. Like survivors, co-workers also may need counseling to confront their own feelings and better understand how they should respond to others.

Furthermore, given that sexual harassment stems from the misuse and abuse of power, it is critical to look more broadly at the workplace environment to examine whether there are conditions, structures, or systemic practices in place that enabled the perpetrator to exert power unchecked. An honest, frank assessment can help shed light on a team’s culture, underlying attitudes, hierarchy, and operation, all of which can help surface potential biases, entrenched routines, and resistance to change. Such an evaluation could mean examining reporting structures within an organization and oversight mechanisms for teams and departments. It also could include examining organizational diversity at the staff, managerial, and senior levels, given research showing that increased numbers of women in the higher ranks of a company can help reduce sexual harassment. This type of structural analysis is essential to identify potential institutional barriers or practices that make it harder to detect—or easier to shield—discrimination.

Confronting voids and filling empty spaces

The aftermath of harassment can create a void within a team or department or workplace, and there must be an intentional focus on how this void gets filled. The departure from the workplace of the perpetrator or the survivor—or both—may be sudden and unexpected, immediately changing the workplace equilibrium. For instance, the absent individual may have unfinished assignments that others now have to cover, may be the point person for a team project, may have a visible role in the company, or may leave behind friendships with co-workers who now feel a sense of loss and may want to assign blame. If the person led a department or division, the remaining workers may be anxious about potential restructuring, loss of standing within the company, or new supervisors. Whatever the circumstance, it is important to confront the concerns head on by acknowledging the changed environment and involving the team in moving forward together while focusing on a positive, shared future. Engaging a team collectively in setting manageable goals, updating work plans, and establishing individual roles may help to reaffirm the importance of every member of a team. Research has shown that enabling workers to work together as equals and incorporating self-management tools can foster better relationships and promote greater diversity.

Acknowledging limitations and asking for help

Accomplishing meaningful change in the wake of sexual harassment requires a clear-eyed view of the limitations within a particular workplace, as well as a willingness to ask for help. Outside support from counselors, trainers, consultants, and other employers with similar experiences can be invaluable. Strong leaders and managers are able to recognize within their teams and within themselves areas of strength and areas where more help is needed. Taking a posture internally or externally that resists any acknowledgement of areas for improvement or ways to do better can communicate a lack of self-awareness and a stubborn resistance to concrete change.

Organizationwide communication and engagement

The occurrence of sexual harassment in the workplace can provide an important opportunity for an employer to state clearly and unequivocally its commitment to combat sexual harassment, affirm expectations that all staff at every level will uphold this commitment, and identify specific action steps going forward. Some employers’ instinct to keep quiet and solely have conversations behind closed doors could backfire and appear secretive; often, rumors fill a void in information and take hold while employees are kept in the dark about actions underway and new policies under consideration. Establishing an internal working group, for example, with representation from across the organization or company can help provide input on proposed changes, socialize such changes with different groups of employees, and monitor implementation.

Repair and rebuilding

The path forward after instances of sexual harassment requires a conscious effort to repair and rebuild within teams, departments, and the entire workplace. There is no shortcut for the hard work necessary to drive systemic change, rebuild trust, and foster shifts in attitudes and behaviors. It requires a long-term commitment to engage in comprehensive efforts at different levels within an organization to equip every individual with the tools they need to combat and respond to harassment in real time. Having a written work plan can help guide the timing of any changes and provide a baseline measure for accountability and progress. There are also innovations to consider—tailored to the specific needs of an employer—to help rebuild and strengthen workplaces so that they are better equipped for the future. These include:

  • Having on-site counseling available, from someone who is familiar with the daily workings of an organization, to respond to the different types of trauma or stress that workers invariably experience, including support for individual staff, managers, and supervisors
  • Engaging an adviser, either external or internal—who reports directly to the leader of an organization or company—to focus on the different facets of diversity, anticipate potential conflicts, and be responsive to the diverse needs of all workers
  • Exploring structural innovations, such as creating a safe reporting intake mechanism where designated staff members can receive reports of harassment from any employee outside of any particular team, or facilitating cross-team supervision and enabling managers from one team to serve as a resource for another team
  • Offering customized training on an ongoing basis on issues such as implicit bias to provide targeted assistance and help build knowledge about appropriate practices and conduct, rather than generic trainings, which research suggests are less effective

Conclusion

Sexual harassment can have devastating consequences for survivors, perpetrators, and everyone around them; it can shock and shake the infrastructure of any workplace. The process of recovery and rebuilding is neither easy nor immediate—it is hard work that must be intentional and not occasional, comprehensive and not piecemeal, purposeful and not reluctant. The aftermath of sexual harassment is where change takes place, but it only happens when there is a commitment to look beneath the surface and critically examine how a particular workplace operates. This change is essential to achieving real progress for survivors, workers, and workplaces alike.

Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.