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Corporate America began embracing workplace initiatives to end harassment nearly a half century ago. So why is it still a big problem?


Nation & World

How workplace harassment programs fail

6 min read

A new study questions the effectiveness of many efforts and finds possibilities for a better way forward

Corporate America began embracing programs to reduce sexual harassment at work nearly 50 years ago, but new research suggests many of the efforts aren’t succeeding and that women’s career growth is suffering.

In a paper published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor of Sociology Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, studied the effectiveness of harassment grievance procedures and training programs over three decades.

The researchers looked at survey data on corporate sexual harassment programs at 805 companies from 1971 to 2002 from the Princeton Survey Research Center and annual census figures on the ethnicity, race, and gender of private-sector workers from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Dobbin and Kalev examined changes in the share of women in management after companies adopted grievance procedures and training programs. Numbers of women managers tended to grow in more supportive work environments.

“In existing literature on harassment in the workplace, we see that women who file grievances most often face retaliation and have to leave their jobs because they find their workplaces so toxic,” said Dobbin.

Conversely, he said, “You can see that a workplace is getting better for a particular group when you see significant increases in the numbers of a particular group in the management ranks.”

According to Dobbin and Kalev, 98 percent of surveyed employers had established grievance procedures for harassment by 2002, while 82 percent had manager training and 64 percent had employee training. Eighteen percent implemented all three.

Researchers found that grievance procedures and employee training that focused on preventing illegal or negative behavior were followed by decreases in the numbers of women in management.

On the other hand, training that helped managers understand and effectively address incidents of harassment was followed by increases of women in leadership roles. In companies with more female managers, such training was especially helpful for black, Hispanic, and Asian American women.

“We’re seeing a growing recognition that workplace sexual harassment isn’t a side issue when it comes to gender equity; it’s one of the central issues.”

Professor of Sociology Frank Dobbin

“We see that management training works pretty well to increase the numbers of white women in organizations that don’t have a lot of women in management already, but it works better to increase the numbers of minority women in organizations that do have a lot of women in management,” said Dobbin. “The theory behind that result is that [in general], women respond more positively to training than men do and, following training, are less likely to blame the victim. Men in general are more likely to blame the victim” if approached with a complaint.

However, Dobbin cautions that simply growing the ranks of women managers isn’t a silver bullet for halting harassment. When the overall share of women in leadership rose above 15 percent, harassment training for managers tended to have an adverse effect on white women in particular. Researchers theorize that this negative effect reflects resistance by a dominant group to the perceived encroachment of a minority group into their sphere of power. Because there are more white than minority women in corporate management roles, they become viewed as a greater threat.

“We see a pattern here in workplaces with a management team of mostly men,” said Dobbin. “As the number of women starts to increase, men start to resist the addition of more women to the management team,” resulting in retaliation against them.

In the paper, the researchers offer possible solutions to harassment and retaliation, highlighting potential changes to training and grievance models that increase employee engagement and lessen victim-blaming.

As an alternative to the existing grievance process, Dobbin and Kalev point to the growing use of independent ombudspersons, who offer a confidential, third-party resource for people to report harassment and think through feasible and appropriate solutions. This model is also recommended by the EEOC as one that helps mitigate the possibility of retaliation and provides a complainant with an ally.

Training programs have continued to proliferate across the country, but many are online and less effective than in-person training, according to Dobbin. He and Kalev recommend bystander-intervention training, which has been adopted in the military and in higher education with positive results.

“When it comes to harassment training, the bystander-intervention model is one of the promising avenues,” said Dobbin. “Bystander training can work because it’s not accusatory and starts out by trying to get the people who are being trained onto the side of the person who is facing harassment. It puts people in the position of the third party observing a situation, but it can also make people scrutinize their own behavior.”

Dobbin also highlighted the importance of companies collecting and analyzing their own data on harassment and workplace safety, and pointed out that many firms do not track or share information on complaints.

“In order for employers to diagnose and address the problems they have, they have to collect more data,” said Dobbin, citing surveys like the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire developed by psychologist Louise Fitzgerald. “But there’s a catch [to that], because if they collect more data, they might get into trouble in court … for allowing a culture of harassment to persist.”

Corporate policies alone won’t solve the problem of harassment, said Dobbin. It’s also essential for employers to change workplace culture by recruiting and retaining managers of all genders with proven commitments to ending sexual harassment at work.

“We’re seeing a growing recognition that workplace sexual harassment isn’t a side issue when it comes to gender equity; it’s one of the central issues,” he said. “There are long-term negative career consequences for women who face harassment and try to do something about it and for women who face harassment and don’t do anything about it. One of the positive effects of the #MeToo movement is that more people are now realizing that what we have [in place] doesn’t work.”