What can retailers do to prevent sexual harassment?
Presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
The sexual harassment scandals in Hollywood and Capitol Hill are but a visible proxy for what has long gone on in many other workplaces.
Indeed, according to a Center for American Progress analysis of figures collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2005 and 2015, the two sectors with the highest incidence of reported sexual harassment were hospitality and food service, accounting for 14 percent of complaints. Retail received 13 percent of complaints.
Will the #MeToo discussion encourage individuals in offices, selling environments and warehouses to finally raise claims about treatment while still feeling safe?
Don’t bet on it, says Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of the School’s Center for Human Resources. He said, “It is still very dangerous for employees to challenge leaders in most organizations on anything as consequential as a harassment charge.”
One hurdle is that fact that men often have different standards for what is acceptable. Many wind up rationalizing their bad behavior. But the other challenge is that victims fear speaking up will ruin their careers.
“Many people see HR as the people who defend the company against lawsuits,” said Janice R. Bellace, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics.
Wharton management professor Katherine Klein said companies need a culture that not only makes it clear that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, but “makes it psychologically safe for employees to express concerns, complaints and suggestions.”
Ms. Bellace said HR should be proactive in conveying to supervisors that improper jokes, lewd comments and inappropriately sexual comments are unacceptable in the workplace. For victims, however, avoiding subsequent fallout for coming forward can be difficult, especially in small staffs such as a selling floor.
“Companies need to make statements — and follow up with actions — that say that anyone who feels they are being harassed or disrespected at work should speak to HR and that the company will endeavor to keep the matter as confidential as possible,” Ms. Bellace said. “But the company cannot promise confidentiality. After all, it must investigate the complaint, and in a small work group it will be obvious who is complaining about whom.”
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is sexual harassment as much a challenge for retailers — whether on selling floors, warehouses or in offices — as other industries? What advice would you have for management working to reduce such incidents as well as establishing work environments conducive to addressing complaints?