Creating a Harassment-Free Culture in the Workplace

Kathy Worm

By Kathy Worm

So much has been written about the problem of sexual harassment over the past few months. All of the glaring headlines have certainly raised the profile of the issue and opened a much-needed dialogue about the problem. Much less has been written about how to effectively address the issue in the everyday businesses that provide jobs for millions of people. This article presents my thoughts on how to start to fix the problem of male/ female harassment in the workplace.

Rules/Laws on the Books Aren’t Working

The standard means of addressing the problem are clearly not working. Laws have been on the books for years. Almost every company has a handbook policy prohibiting harassment and most provide harassment training to their employees. If an allegation of harassment is made, most companies will launch some sort of investigation.

While all of these strategies are beneficial, and indeed necessary, to defend a harassment case, policies and procedures do little to change people’s behavior. There are many reasons for this lack of effectiveness.

First, the rules often are not applied to the star salesperson or genius founder. The ugly truth is that some companies would prefer to terminate the victim rather than lose the starff – and the money associated with the star.

Second, harassers don’t follow the rules.

Third, women are often afraid that they will lose their job or their clout if they complain, and often do not trust HR to do a fair investigation.

Focus on Culture and Consequences

Effectively addressing harassment will require companies to focus on culture and consequences. Creating a harassment free culture must be addressed from the top down and the bottom up. Company management and boards must clearly indicate that harassment will not be tolerated. Boards should evaluate CEOs for their effectiveness in creating a culture in which employees are not afraid to report harassment.

Why at the board level? Because a harassment free culture will not only limit the company’s liability but will also increase the company’s productivity and creativity and therefore its bottom line. Harassed women spend inordinate amounts of time managing around the harasser. This distraction inhibits the growth of new ideas and fear is not the friend of innovation.

A harassment free culture is impossible unless women feel free to report their concerns without fear of retribution of any kind. The sheer volume of the #MeToo campaign raised a serious question about the lack of reporting of harassment claims. Good leaders will focus on the research surrounding why women, even strong women, fail to report harassment and create a culture that addresses those concerns. For example, women report that they fear they will not be believed if they report harassment. Management should train managers on how to listen and how to indicate that the report will be taken seriously.

All employees of either gender should be encouraged to report instances of bad behavior. Often other men are aware of the harassment but fail to report it. Women, in particular, must do their part in reporting instances of harassment. They must have the courage to stand up to power and defend themselves against bullies, including harassers. They must stop the harasser’s ability to harass someone else.

Consistent Consequences for Harassers

Once a report of harassment has been made, management should make absolutely certain that the investigator of a harassment claim is well trained, experienced and free to tell management something it may not want to hear. Too often the investigator lacks the skills to keep matters confidential, asks leading questions and sides with management to protect their own job. If an investigation determines harassment has occurred, management has to dole out meaningful consequences based on the type and severity of the harassment. There must be consequences every single time without exception, even for the star or the college roommate of the boss. Culture and behavior will not change without strict adherence to enforcing the rules. If one guy gets a pass, then the message will be sent that harassment is sometimes ok and then the whole vicious cycle of harassment, fear of reporting and management looking the other way starts again.

There should also be consequences for the subtle, not rising to the level of harassment behavior prevalent that is some workplaces. If women know that the VP of sales is not going to get away with making inappropriate jokes at the national sales meeting, they will be less likely to suffer through working in a place where “that is just the way it is.”

Effectively addressing harassment by focusing on culture and consequences will not change things overnight. When dealing with employee behavior, there is no quick fix. But, a company that addresses the harassment issue in this manner will create a business that is more collaborative and productive and that attracts talent.


Kathy Worm has provided counsel to both employers and employees in harassment cases. She provides unique and engaging harassment training that addresses corporate culture issues by teaming up with Eileen Dowse, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist. She conducts skilled investigations and provides accurate feedback to management. She provides counsel to executives in transition and academic entrepreneurs. She is listed as a Super Lawyer and is consistently named to Business North Carolina’s Legal Elite. She may be reached at Kathy@wormlaw.com or (919) 594-1587.