What You Should Know About Sexual Harassment At Work, According To An Expert

by Hannah Golden
Aaron Thornton/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

This season has been a veritable monsoon of sexual harassment and assault allegations in the media. Many people have no idea that harassment is going on, and more still fear speaking up when it's taking place. So what can you do about sexual harassment at work?

Sexual harassment has been a hot topic after a shocking report on Oct. 5 alleged that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein paid off sexual misconduct cases for decades (he has largely denied allegations of assault). This story opened up the floodgates, causing a dozen high-powered executives in the media to come under fire for sexual misconduct allegations of their own. Now that the problem is getting some well-deserved attention, it's a good time to look at the situation.

I spoke with Caren Goldberg, an expert witness and litigation consultant and associate professor of management at Bowie State University who specializes in employment law and workplace discrimination cases. Goldberg broke down some of the most common myths around sexual harassment in the workplace and offered some advice for both employees and employers.

People often don't recognize what harassment is.

Per an analysis cited by The New York Times, about 25 percent of women said they'd been sexually harassed at work. But that number doubled when asked if they'd experienced a specific behavior, such as a request for a sexual favor or inappropriate touching.

And it's not surprising most people still aren't sure what harassment is. Though most workplaces have internal policies, the U.S. Equal Employment & Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has defined harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances" or offensive comments made about a person's gender. The EEOC says the law doesn't prohibit "simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not very serious," and the language is pretty vague, defining harassment as illegal "when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment." Ask 10 people what constitutes "severe" or "offensive" and you'd get very different answers.

According to Goldberg, the recent news shows that "harassment occurs far more frequently than many people realized," and that "people don't report because they have legitimate fears that they will not be taken seriously." However, she hopes that the spate of accusations followed by firings, resignations, and other consequences for the accused "served to quell those fears" that accusers would not be taken seriously.

If you need some advice on recognizing harassment, a series of PSAs made by Sigal Avin and Friends star David Schwimmer last year, "That's Harassment," called out the fact that many people still don't know what constitutes inappropriate behavior.

It's not about the victim — it's about power.

Often, responses to an instance of harassment or assault are met with questions about what the victim was wearing. Our society loves to victim-blame and slut-shame around sexual violence and misconduct. In fact, Goldberg says one of the biggest myths around sexual harassment is the idea "that it is 'brought on' by the victim (her style of dress, make-up, etc.)." This happened, for instance, when designer Donna Karan didn't condemn Weinstein, but rather suggested that women were "asking for it" (a statement she later backtracked on).

"It is not about the victim; it is about the harasser looking to maintain his (or her) power," Goldberg says.

Harassers don't necessarily seek out "weak" victims.

Though people (like the one above) still believe it, victims of harassment are not "thin-skinned" or "fragile." Research is clear, Goldberg says, that most harassers have the same motivation: power. For that reason, anyone who might further a harasser's sense of power could be a target — not just someone who is perceived as "weak," though many people might mistakenly assume this. In fact, women in higher positions are also common targets.

No news doesn't necessarily mean good news.

If a workplace — or individual — has had no complaints againt them, it's not necessarily time to celebrate. Just because no one has reported harassment to their HR department doesn't mean harassment is not happening. In fact, research shows a shockingly low percentage of workplace harassment ever gets reported — only one-quarter to a third of those who said they'd experienced it had ever filed a formal complaint with their employers, according to an analysis by Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, and an even smaller minority ever took a case to court.

Why? Because of the repercussions associated with reporting harassment, such as being seen as a threat "to the existing power structure, to the organization's legal exposure, to the work group's cohesion," and so on, Goldberg says. People also may not report because of the reality that "many organizations don't take complaints seriously."

Some people might question a victim if they come forward months or years after an incident — especially if they're coming forward as part of a wave of victims opening up. On the contrary, more people may feel safe to tell their stories now because of the sheer numbers. "Seeing other women come forward has chipped away at that deterrent, because as victims see that others are believed, it creates a perception that, 'if I come forward, they'll believe me, too,'" Goldberg says.

There's no one right way to deal with harassment.

Because not every case is the same, it would make sense that there's no one right way to stop harassment at work. For instance, Goldberg says, simply saying, "That was awkward," or "Why would you say that?" in response to a sexist joke or comment could be all that it takes to prevent it from happening again.

This can apply either as a victim or a bystander — in fact, it's especially important that bystanders intervene because they often have less to lose.

It's not just on a victim to make harassment stop. It's on everyone.

Bystanders as well may not be doing their jobs. By not taking any action to put a stop to harassment they witness, a bystander may be implicitly condoning it.

Goldberg recommends that everyone in the workplace be attentive to harassment and take action accordingly, following the "if you see something, say something" approach. Goldberg thinks "programs aimed at encouraging bystanders to intervene are really the most promising avenues" for tackling the issue. Because harassers will harass "as long as they experience positive reinforcement for doing so," it's on everyone to make it clear that they're not OK with the behavior. If a male coworker, for example, calls out a comment to a harasser as inappropriate, rather than laughing it off or saying nothing, it removes the positive reinforcement and sends a strong message.

These stories aren't going away.

Until harassment stops, people reporting it won't, either. Goldberg says American saw similar upticks in reporting after the Anita Hill case, a high-profile case where Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment when he was nominated for the Supreme Court in 1991. As for today's events, she says it remains to be seen if and when organizations will make changes. Changing a workplace's "culture and climate ... is neither easy nor quick," Goldberg says.

Whether the wave of people coming forward with their stories of harassment will incite real change is unclear. But until that change comes, it's everyone's problem.