The Problem With the Term “Sexual Harassment”

The Problem With the Term “Sexual Harassment”

Did you know that sexual harassment is rarely motivated by sexual desire?

In the popular imagination, sexual harassment evokes images of men who ask women on dates and can’t take a hint, or powerful male bosses who request sexual favors from less powerful women. But while inappropriate sexual advances are undoubtedly part of what makes sexual harassment such an issue, the scope of unwanted remarks and behaviors go well beyond instances dealing directly with sex.

One of the reasons why sexual harassment is so hard to extinguish is in part because it can be difficult to define or detect. Besides the fact that our cultural standards have changed seemingly overnight, thought leaders have argued that sexual harassment, better phrased sex-based harassment, goes well beyond sexual misconduct. It’s more often rooted in sexism, and its manifestations can be both sexual and non-sexual.

This is why the term “sexual harassment” can lead to an poor understanding of the full range of abusive workplace behaviors. As such, we as a society need clarity on what it actually means. What is sexual harassment? In an attempt to provide a thorough understanding, we’ll first cover the work others have done to shed light on the phenomenon, then illustrate the ways that sex-based harassment can manifest within your organization.

Recently, Donald Glover and Rashida Jones made huge strides in educating the public through their anti-harassment PSA on BuzzFeed, illustrating sex-based harassment through a number of storyboards and FAQ-type decision trees.

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Adapted and abridged visual summary of the anti-harassment PSA for Time’s Up

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Professor Emerita at the USC Marshall School of Business, offers a Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct to further our understanding. While offering a framework that organizations can use to lower the risk of conflict and legal action, Reardon also drills into what kinds of remarks or behaviors might fall into each category. For example, comments like “you look nice today” are generally innocuous. However, if such comments are repeated often enough or paired with sexually toned glances or gestures, the recipient may construe the speaker’s behavior as offensive.

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A visual adaptation of the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work by Kathleen Kelley Reardon

These examples and frameworks are a great starting point. But sexual harassment stems from highly subtle, interconnected, and systemic behaviors that can be both sexual and nonsexual. Without a proper understanding of how harassment works, it’s easy to miss things that don’t immediately escalate but pull the thread and set genuine sexual misconduct in motion. So, while scenarios and scales are helpful, the full scope of sex-based harassment looks more like this:


Sex-based harassment is an intersectional phenomenon and can express itself in many ways

This framework, based on an open statement on sexual harassment from the Stanford Law Review, captures subtle expressions that seem harmless, but left unchecked can endanger both well-being and performance at the individual, cultural, and organizational levels.

In the face of such social and cultural complexity, the temptation is to ban all references to gender, sex, class, and other potential points of controversy. However, we’ve seen that banning all of these behaviors can sometimes cause more harm than good. For example, the five-second staring rule at Netflix has led to ridicule for restricting the eye contact needed to do normal work.  In fact, discrimination lawyers have said that such sweeping prohibitions tend to be unhelpful and can even inhibit the elimination of workplace harassment by promoting segregation, cynicism, and further inequality.

While there is no silver bullet to stopping harassment and discrimination, we’ve seen that there are a few steps that you can take to build a concrete, holistic plan that will help strengthen your workplace culture:

  • Communicate clearly and honestly about your standards for behavior in the organization,

  • Stop these problems at the source of the issue by screening for negative behaviors during the hiring process;

  • Update your training methods to cover all forms of harassment and discrimination, including mistreatment on the basis of gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, and gender identity;

  • Clarify the full scope of sex-based harassment, emphasizing that sexist behavior is unacceptable whether or not it’s sexual in nature, or directed at someone of the opposite or same sex;

  • Establish a bottom line. If a behavior impairs another employee’s psychological well being, work performance, employment status or professional advancement, or if left unchecked will contribute to a discriminatory work environment, it needs to be addressed.

These are the building blocks of a harassment-free workplace. Once you understand how the phenomenon works, you can take steps towards achieving full inclusion and freedom from unwelcome sex-based harassment in your organization.

Where Influencer Marketing Went Wrong (and how to make it right)

Where Influencer Marketing Went Wrong (and how to make it right)

Influencer marketing has skyrocketed in the last 10 years. Since the arrival of social media, companies have witnessed the rise of a new personality called the influencer. With the ability to engage fans online and offline, influencers can drive purchasing decisions more powerfully than ever thought before. These days, influencers aren’t just athletes and actors—they are gamers, kids, dogs and even computer-generated characters.

Companies clamor for influencers because their ads look authentic. Rather than send a traditional ad into the news feed, brands can have influencers share a post of themselves using or endorsing the company’s product. This is a powerful and unobtrusive way to reach customers, and even as social media platforms become saturated, the ROI of influencer marketing remains significant and measurable.

  The rise of influencer marketing, measured in  Google searches

The rise of influencer marketing, measured in Google searches

Influencer marketing is a billion-dollar industry and projected to grow even more in the next five years—but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to dive right in. Where brands benefit from perceived authenticity, they lose control of both messaging and execution. Without proper vetting and due diligence, companies can spend dollars and hurt their brands in the process.

Why does this happen? In part, it’s because only 29% of influencers say they are asked about their audience demographics. But to more fully understand how influencers can hurt your brand, we need to understand the motivations of influencers, and of the humans they reach.

1. Many influencers aren’t invested in your brand

In August 2015, Adidas signed James Harden of the Houston Rockets away from Nike in a 13-year deal worth $200 million. So when Harden was found wearing Nikes in mid-September, the internet went wild about the perceived betrayal. While it turns out Harden was reportedly just fulfilling contractual obligations, the controversy still reflects the transactional nature of many paid partnerships between brands and influencers. Even when influencers are committed to their contracts, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re invested in your brand.

2. Choosing the wrong influencer can hurt your brand

When Pepsi launched its global diversity campaign with Kendall Jenner, they did not realize what a firestorm their ad would create. Borrowing images from Black Lives Matter, the company released a video in which Jenner ditches her photoshoot, approaches a line of police officers, and offers one of them a Pepsi. People saw right through the ad, infuriated that Pepsi would use someone like Jenner in #BlackLivesMatter to sell soda. Influencers can have good intentions but if they’re not really aligned with your values, they can generate a backlash that’s hard to withstand.

3. Influencers might have off-brand content

A few hours after the New York Times hired tech writer Quinn Norton, tweets surfaced showing that Norton had once retweeted a racial slur, used language considered derogatory in the queer community, and signaled friendship with a known neo-Nazi. Even as journalists argued that Norton had suffered “context collapse,” the Times chose to part ways with Norton. The Quinn Norton case shows that it’s critical to screen influencers for potential red flags, and that even when tweets are put in proper context, the public’s response can sink your partnership.

So how do you protect your brand while working with influencers? We find that the strongest partnerships practice transparency and look for shared values.

Develop and find brand advocates. 73% of influencers put in more effort when they feel brand resonance. The more genuine passion your influencer has for your brand, the more organic the partnership will be. Are you forcing a relationship with a big influencer in hopes of reaching a large audience? Try working with a microinfluencer instead and consider how they might promote your product besides recommending a product directly. Alternatively, cultivate brand advocates, who can generate more than twice the ROI of influencers through word of mouth.

Follow the FTC guidelines for influencers. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) laid out a set of guidelines influencers and companies should follow and required influencers to disclose the relationships they have with brands. While some argue that this dilutes the authenticity of the ad, marketing experts say that being forthright about the relationship in accordance with FTC guidelines actually helps maintain authenticity, strengthening consumer connection with brands and giving them stake in the interaction.

Screen influencers as closely as you screen employees. The accountability mechanisms for influencer marketing are few, and even if influencers are not on your payroll, the public sees them as part of your brand. Besides screening for flags, make sure the influencer understands your mission and brand, and is committed to the objective and terms of the partnership. Making the effort to choose the right influencer with right traits can not only set you apart but also keep you safe from a potential PR disaster.

20 years ago, harassment training was revolutionary. Here's why it’s not anymore

20 years ago, harassment training was revolutionary. Here's why it’s not anymore

More and more Americans have grown to consider sexual harassment a problem in the last 20 years. In 1998, 53 percent of adults surveyed by Gallup said that people were too sensitive about sexual harassment. But something has turned in the last two decades and in 2017, 59 percent of adults now say that people are not sensitive enough.

The general public is expecting more from businesses than ever when it comes to creating a safe, inclusive work environment. So how is sexual harassment in the workplace still so widespread?

In 1998, the Supreme Court determined that for a company to avoid liability in a sexual harassment case, it had to show its employees were trained and given a way to report offenses. Anita Hill had charged Justice Clarence Thomas with harassment just years prior, and companies like Mitsubishi had made payments totaling $34 million to a cohort of female workers.

At the time, this ruling was revolutionary. In response to the new federal code, companies across the U.S. adopted training seminars and videos, understanding that any company that shrugged off sexual harassment would now pay a steep price. Women’s rights advocates praised the court’s decision to place responsibility upon employers, and even businesses were thankful to have clear guidelines at last.

So recently, when stories about major harassment scandals began to circulate, not only did sexual harassment become a focal point but so did the methods used to presumably stop it. The New York Times reported that harassment trainings are conduits of information at best and the EEOC even stated that trainings can sometimes carry negative effects. For all the new programs and policies enacted in past decades, women and men still remain as likely to be harassed today as they were 30 years ago.

If everyone believes training and reporting are integral to corporate culture, then why aren’t they working? It’s because the focus on compliance and claim prevention, inherent to most training and reporting programs, misses the most important driver of a healthy workplace culture today. Since 1998, we’ve shifted from a society that runs on compliance to one that runs on incentive.

For a time, as long as companies tracked attendance at trainings, clicked through a PowerPoint, and collected signatures on the employee handbook, they were off the hook. But in recent years, trainings have reinforced gender stereotypes, received more backlash when delivered by women, and failed to promote accountability unless done by a supervisor. Women and minorities who support diversity have even been found to be penalized in performance reviews.

Reporting systems have likewise fallen behind. 72 percent of workers who experience sexual harassment at work do not report it, and 75 percent of victims who do report sexual harassment experience retaliation. Beyond a fear of retaliation or isolation, victims may disqualify their own experience or not be able to report the violation at all. The focus on compliance and claim prevention in training and reporting has blurred the lines between what was and wasn’t acceptable for decades. But #MeToo is evidence that things have changed, and brand risk is now cited in the Aon 2017 Global Risk Management Survey as a company’s #1 risk.

So how are businesses expected to meet the standard today? Trainings can be updated to reflect where we are as a society, and reporting can be designed to protect the affected women and men. Prevention offers the highest return of all—setting a standard of dignity, respect, and professionalism can attract top talent, protect you from surprise plaintiffs, and stop harassment in its tracks.

Compliance is no longer sufficient. In this new era of work, the strongest companies are thinking beyond diversity and inclusion and finding ways to help their culture align with a new generation of standards.

The Strongest Predictor of Sexual Harassment? Your Culture!

A landmark study released this weekend by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine revealed that the strongest predictor of sexual harassment has little to do with individual perpetrators. Rather, the most potent indicator is what researchers call “organizational climate”—in other words, your company’s culture.

While there is no silver bullet to reducing sexual harassment, we’ve found that one of the best ways to keep harassers at bay is to not just throw out the bad apples but focus instead on improving the whole barrel. As businesses are being held increasingly accountable for taking ownership of sexual harassment, we’re seeing that culture remains key to an enjoyable and competitive workplace.

Human resources professionals and culture advocates have said that, to improve the organizational climate, leaders must set the example, women must be promoted, and organizations must take swift action against inappropriate behavior. But where does one start with these undertakings? We’ve compiled three steps you can take to improve your culture and help decrease the likelihood of sexual harassment:

1. Get clear on your commitments and definitions

Strengthening your company’s response to harassment creates not only a healthier workplace but also a stronger public image. A study from the UCLA Anderson School of Management found that when an organization is timely, informative, and considerate towards victims in the event of a claim, their reputation can be restored to the level of one with no incidence of sexual harassment at all.

Clarify your policies around harassment and discrimination. Is there an emoji or turn of phrase that might be questionable? A stated turnaround time promised alleged victims? Make this common knowledge in your organization (Facebook has a list of inappropriate behaviors) so employees know your standards and understand there are consequences for ill-suited actions.

2. Get your employees involved in improving culture

Your employees can be one of your strongest prevention tools if trained and educated properly. Several thought leaders have suggested bystander training, civility training, and even reporting. Doing so not only allows culture teams to delegate responsibility but also addresses a shifting demand in society. While a majority of Americans in 1998 said people in the workplace were too sensitive about harassment, more than half of Americans today say people in the workplace are not sensitive enough.

Make a case for bystander requirements or incentives and find new ways to encourage reporting. Getting your employees involved can empower them with a responsibility they value, increase the likelihood that unwelcome behaviors are swiftly addressed, and reduce the occurrence of unwanted actions.

3. Bring culture and narrative into your policy

Sexual harassment policies aren’t just legal documents. They are culturally significant, meaning-making texts that play a role in defining and stopping unprofessional behavior. Policies lacking in a strong narrative are susceptible to being usurped by harassers. But, when infused with emotional language and backed up with promised action, they disrupt offenders’ ability to harm fellow workers.

Turn your policies into a cultural code and meet with stakeholders at multiple levels to gather input. It’s your chance to ensure a safe working environment for everyone.

The best workplaces are built on a set of clear and compelling cultural codes, manifested in both word and deed. Implement these changes and you’ll see a happier and more inclusive workforce.

Sexual Harassment: An Inflection Point

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the veil has been lifted on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace and the numbers are staggering. Millions of men and women have finally been empowered by the #MeToo movement to come forward and tell their stories of being harassed. In fact, 1 in 3 women reported that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment while at work. Unfortunately, this problem isn't limited to a few bad actors either. About 20 to 25 percent of men self-reported participating in sexually coercive behavior, ranging from forced sex to verbal manipulation like guilt-tripping a woman into having sex.

Given the immense breadth of harassment claims that have emerged, it doesn’t seem that there are large enterprises in any industry that can credibly claim that harassment is not an issue they face in their workplace.

That being said, we have begun to learn a lot about the types of companies that are less susceptible to workplace sexual harassment. Organizations with more women in leadership roles, executive buy-in on anti-harassment efforts, and consistent enforcement of corporate policies have proven track records of being less likely to experience workplace harassment (EEOC). Unfortunately, even with all of these efforts, moving the needle on these fronts can still be quite challenging.

This moment has the potential to be a major inflection point in the effort to stop sexual harassment in the workplace. However, if we fail to truly understand the scope of the problem before us, the moment will slip through our fingers. We believe that leaders in technology, law, politics, and HR need to come together to find solutions that speak to the underlying foundations of this problem. Major victories have been won in rooting out some of the worst of the worst but our work is just beginning.


Fama helps identify harassment at the source and notifies HR professionals immediately to risky behavior. Fama’s web based solution leverages AI technology to identify potential threats before they enter your organization. Call us to learn more.