Katz Banks Kumin partner Debra Katz appeared as a guest on NPR's 1A this morning in a podcast entitled, "Sexual Harassment in the Workplace." The episode covered an array of topics ranging from why sexual harassment and assault are such pervasive problems across college campuses and professional industries to what individuals can do to address these issues proactively. Often, workplace culture plays a large part in enabling harassment. In the recent case of Sterling Jewelers, parent company to both Jared and Kay Jewelers, hundreds of current and former employees came forward and testified to instances of sexual harassment. Commenting on the case, Ms. Katz said, "This is really despicable sexual harassment." The Washington Post reported that these employees were consistently subjected to solicitations for sex and other forms of harassment. "The case is very serious," Ms. Katz said, noting that the nearly 1200 pages worth of statements are indicative of a company "that remains tone deaf." In this case, Sterling's corporate culture established a tone of acceptance by allowing executives to model inappropriate behavior from the top. "Sexual harassment is about abuse of power, plain and simple," Ms. Katz said.
Human resources must set the right tone. Ms. Katz said, "If you don't have urgency and accountability at the top of an organization to say that sexual harassment will not be tolerated here, and there will be repurcussions...you're setting a tone where sexual harassment is normalized." Too often, HR enables a hostile work environment by refusing to act. When ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler complained about an executive's sexual advances, the ride-sharing company's human resources officials declined to address the issue. Even when presented with physical evidence, including text messages, officials in the company refused to take action because the executive was deemed to be a "high peformer." In doing so, the HR department created a culture that allowed sexual harassment to persist.
Many victims of sexual harassment fear retaliation for reporting their experiences. By refusing to address Fowler's complaints, Ms. Katz contended that Uber made the mistake of conveying that they would side with the harasser - a common problem across industries. Ms. Katz said, "If you do not deal with the issue of retaliation, you will never get people to feel comfortable both reporting sexual harassment and supporting victims of sexual harassment through their own stories." While single comments may not rise to the legal level of harassment, HR departments must proactively address employees' complaints before they become legally actionable. Sexual harassment is frequently used as an instrument to punish women. Woman in an array of industries, including food service, retail, and many non-traditional fields, are often worried to come forward and complain as they may face further harassment and termination.
Sexual harassment and assault are not only issues in professional industries, but also in academia. Ms. Katz said, "Sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses is an epidemic." Like many corporate HR departments, college and university administrative bodies across the United States have failed to adequately address instances of reported harassment and assault, dissuading victims from coming forward. "Training faculty members has been no solution," she said.
Ms. Katz continued, "We can't have this conversation about why sexual harassment occurs without looking at the president...When you have the president of the United States bragging that if you have power, you can just do this - that sends a very powerful message...This is showing up in cases, and people are emboldened by this. It has normalized the issue."
Anyone can be a harasser and anyone can be harassed. As a result, Ms. Katz concluded, everyone plays a role in stopping sexual harassment and creating an environment where it will not to be tolerated. For more information on how to stop sexual harassment and help victims, consult the following resources: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Know Your IX, Mentors in Violence Prevention, and Collective Action for Safe Spaces. Listen to the full episode here.