Can Better Policies Prevent Workplace Sexual Harassment?

NEW YORK (AP) — Sexual misconduct happens at work not because companies don’t publish anti-harassment policies, experts say, but because managers don’t enforce them — and because people fail to apply them to themselves.

While the floodgates on reporting abuse and sexual harassment have opened with high-profile cases in Big Tech, Hollywood and Washington, it’s not yet clear whether the effects of the #metoo movement have trickled down to day-to-day offices, factories and other places regular people work.

“I do think it will be a lasting movement,” said Roberta Kaplan, an attorney who won the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage in the U.S. But while Kaplan— who is defending a woman who is being sued by Hollywood produced Brett Ratner after accusing him of rape — thinks “most companies have policies that are pretty good,” there’s still a problem: Many people don’t truly comprehend them.

“They understand the English language, and what the words mean in the abstract sense, but I don’t think most people understood it in everyday life,” she said.

In an unusual move for a large company, Facebook on Friday publicly released its policies against workplace harassment and bullying, including its enforcement procedures and how it investigates complaints. The company says it wants to help other companies create better policies, and ideally prompt them to publish their own procedures too.

“We don’t think we are perfect, we don’t think we have all the answers,” said Lori Goler, the company’s vice president of people. But she said companies should “come together to make sure that we all learn from each other.”

Facebook itself has been sued for sex discrimination and harassment, in 2015 by a former employee who said she was wrongfully terminated in 2013 after she complained about being harassed. The woman, Chia Hong, later dropped the suit, and Facebook has maintained no wrongdoing.

Facebook would not disclose how many complaints of sexual harassment it has investigated, or specific details on how well its policy has actually worked. Goler said the goal is not to reduce the number of reports, but to get “as many people to raise their hand as possible.”

Dan Eaton, an employment attorney and instructor of business ethics at San Diego State University, said “sexual harassment policies, like ethics policies, are only as good as the managers who implement them and are responsible for making sure there is broad compliance.”

In this May 16, 2012, file photo, the Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad in Philadelphia. On Friday, Dec. 8, 2017, Facebook publicly released its policies against workplace harassment. This includes enforcement procedures and how it investigates complaints. The company says it wants to help other companies create better policies, and ideally prompt them to publish their own procedures too. Photo: AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File.

For a policy to be effective, he said, it has to be applied consistently — and if wrongdoing is found, there have to be consequences that are disclosed “not only to the person who complained but to the entire workplace.”

“That sends a message that these policies are not only on paper but in action,” he said. It is not clear if Facebook’s policy meets that standard.

Goler said that while Facebook’s policy itself has been “pretty consistent” over the years, the training around has evolved to address the “gray areas” and nuanced situations that people might encounter. For example, she said, “how many times do you ask someone out?” before backing off, and what if they don’t say no outright but that they are busy? Do you ask again?

Facebook, like many other companies, will fire offenders if the company determines that sexual harassment has taken place. More difficult are the unclear cases, where it’s one person’s word against another’s.

Facebook also has a mandatory arbitration agreement for anyone who joins the company. Experts on workplace harassment say these sorts of clauses can deter people who want to report harassment.

Facebook’s move on Friday follows Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s post over the weekend warning of a potential backlash against women and urging companies to put clear policies in place on how they handle sexual harassment allegations.

“We need systemic, lasting changes that deter bad behavior and protect everyone, from professionals climbing the corporate ladder to workers in low-paid positions who often have little power,” she wrote. “We need to end the abuse of power imbalances due to gender – and race and ethnicity, too. We must not lose this opportunity.”