The Evolution of Workplace Policies on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination
Get Leadership Insights Delivered Right to Your Inbox
The journey toward equality and justice in the workplace has been long, arduous, and ongoing. Sexual harassment and discrimination have been a challenge in workplaces for centuries, leading to employee turnover, lower production, emotional trauma for some, career stagnation for others, and a toxic work environment. Over the years, workplace policies and attitudes have evolved to more seriously address these concerns, with recent high-profile cases and legislation further shaping the conversation. One thing is for certain a lot of change has been happening over the recent years, and likely there is still more ahead. In this article, we will explore the evolution of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace and provide actionable advice for businesses and individuals to create a safe and inclusive work environment.
Understanding Sexual Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace
Sexual harassment includes any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Discrimination occurs when employees are treated unfairly based on their race, gender, age, religion, or other protected characteristics.
Implementing comprehensive policies to address these issues is crucial for protecting employees’ rights and fostering a healthy work culture. Such policies not only set the standard for acceptable behavior but help set guidelines for your employees to better and more clearly understand complaint procedures should they become aware or feel victim to a form of discrimination or sexual harassment.
The Changing Landscape of Workplace Policies and Attitudes
Your grandparents or great-grandparents lived and worked in an environment where many organizations lacked formal policies to address sexual harassment and discrimination, and the subject was often considered taboo. The behavior was readily forgiven and too often accepted. However, as awareness of these issues increased, so did the implementation of policies and procedures to combat them, along with expectations through a myriad of legislative acts. Some key milestones in this evolution include:
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
- The establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1965, which enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination.
- The Supreme Court’s ruling in McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green laid the groundwork to determine who has what burdens of proof in proving or defending these types of claims.
- The Supreme Court’s ruling in 1988 established employer liability and potential defenses if employers meet an obligation often termed a duty to provide reasonable care (have policies, complaint procedures, training, investigate potential issues, and provide prompt corrective action as applicable).
- #MeToo Movement created national (and global) awareness of the issue and encouraged victims to come forward, and was a key driver behind political action for further legislative action both federally and locally.
Recent Legislation and High-Profile Cases
Several laws have been enacted in recent years to provide additional protections for employees against sexual harassment and discrimination. Below is a sampling of these laws:
- The CROWN Act has been a State by State movement making it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their natural hair.
- State-level legislation, such as California’s SB 1343, New York’s Stop Sexual Harassment Act, Connecticut’s Time’s Up Act, and the Illinois Human Rights Act (as a few examples), require employers to provide sexual harassment and discrimination training.
- In 2022, the U.S. Congress passed the Speak Out Act, which basically eliminated nondisclosure agreements signed before a dispute occurs from being enforceable in matters of sexual harassment.
High-profile cases have also influenced policy changes and public opinion on this subject including:
- The Harvey Weinstein scandal, which exposed widespread sexual harassment and assault allegations against the former Hollywood producer, sparked the #MeToo movement that inspired countless individuals to share their own experiences.
- The recent verdict against Donald Trump, the former President of the United States. In May 2023, a New York jury found that Trump sexually abused the advice columnist E Jean Carroll in a New York department store changing room 27 years ago. This verdict legally connected a former U.S. president as a sexual predator.
- NBC Universal CEO Jeff Shell was fired in 2023 amidst claims of sexual harassment, and this continues to be a challenge for corporate America.
- And so on, and so on.
Implications for Businesses
The verdict against Trump marks another high-profile moment in the plight of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination. This was one of many more recent powerful messages that no one, regardless of their position or power, is immune from being held accountable for their actions. Of course, when we read a headline or listen to a news story about inappropriate workplace conduct, it seems more obvious; yet we often hear stories that people do not even realize what they are doing is wrong.
What does this mean for businesses? It emphasizes the importance of having clear, comprehensive, and enforceable policies against sexual harassment and discrimination. These policies must be backed by training programs, reporting mechanisms, and a commitment to taking every allegation seriously.
What an Employer Should Do to Mitigate Sexual Harassment and Discrimination From Their Workplace
As we navigate this shifting landscape, the role of an executive coach becomes ever more crucial. Executive coaches can provide guidance, tools, and support to leaders in creating an environment that is not only free of harassment and discrimination but also helping challenge leaders to better facilitate open conversations about difficult topics and push leaders beyond their comfort zone to better understand the perspectives of their team members. Further, executive coaching can be an invaluable sounding board for a leader to look inwardly at themselves to see how they can better lead by example. From understanding the implications of a landmark verdict like the one against Trump, to better addressing workplace issues and leading by example, an executive coach can be an invaluable partner.
Additionally, implementing proactive and preventative training and seriously (and timely) understanding complaints or rumors of these types of behaviors is critical.
In conclusion, the recent verdict against Trump underscores the urgency of prioritizing the fight against sexual harassment and discrimination. The evolving landscape offers an opportunity for businesses to lead with integrity, foster a culture of respect, and contribute to a more equitable society. This journey, though challenging, need not be undertaken alone. Engaging with an executive coach can provide the support and insight needed to navigate these complex issues effectively and ethically. Ensuring you are implementing anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training and timely investigating complaints with a professional organization will help reduce instances of harassment and discrimination and more timely address any such incidents which occur.
Now is the time to take action. If you are a leader seeking guidance on how to create a more inclusive and respectful workplace, consider hiring an executive coach, bringing in a professional to provide live training, or engaging with a vendor who can provide quality online training. With this type of expertise and support, you can confidently navigate the complexities of today’s business environment and foster a culture that truly values all of its members. Reach out today to explore how executive coaching can support your leadership journey.