Kate Kalnes, Ed.D. and Jim Davis, Ed.M.

Strategy always falls victim to implementation. Implementation depends on people and the culture within which they operate. Healthy company culture can increase productivity, decrease burnout, and improve employee retention. It creates secure relationships so creativity and collaboration may thrive.

Challenges to company culture can derail operations. When those challenges are unethical, like sexual harassment, they can dismantle an organization.

The United States workforce has an issue with sexual harassment (true all over the world, but the U.S. is where we have done our evaluation). Thousands of lawsuits are filed each year. In every one of those cases, people’s lives are impacted and the culture of the workplace is called into question. Worse still, one study found that 90% of people who have been sexually harassed in the workplace never file a complaint (Cortina & Berdahl, 2008). The true impact of sexual harassment in the workplace is worse than one might think.

There are victims here, and they are on our teams!

78% of sexual harassment charges are filed by women; 20% of charges are filed by men.   Although women bear the brunt of it, sexual harassment is not just a female issue. It affects us all, it is a human and cultural issue.

What should we do about it? To create a culture of mutual respect you will have to address the issue of sexual harassment.

3 Institutional Keys to Create a Culture of Respect

Respect and human decency are cornerstones of a successful culture. Although we’d love to believe that people would check their behavior just because it is the right thing to do, history shows that this cannot be assumed.

Folks who don’t see the problem will often say things like “I was just kidding, they were never actually unsafe…” ok, maybe not. But that doesn’t change the fact that people who have been harassed feel less-than, they feel demeaned and disrespected. It’s wrong any way you look at it.

The first key to limiting sexual harassment is ensuring company leaders get clear on intentions, expectations, and goals.

1) Be Explicit

What sort of culture do you want to create? Do you want to create a culture where people feel respected? Feel like they belong? If your answer is ‘yes’, keep reading.

Do you understand how certain language and behavior would impact individuals in your organization and, by proxy, the group?

Stories of sexual harassment in the workplace make this impact entirely clear. Many people report stress, strain, and contempt when they come to work. Certainly not an optimal place to exist, much less thrive. If you are a leader who is comfortable with this sort of environment, say it out loud. If not, read on.

Leaders in the organization will have to be explicit about their intentions. The proverbial ‘locker-room talk’ of the Mad Men era, thrown around between afternoon cocktails, has to go. Company leadership must make it clear that their intention is to create a space where everyone feels like they belong, like they share a professional purpose, and feel respected at work.

Are you committed to creating and upholding that sort of cultural standard? If so…

2) Be Consistent

One of our favorite sayings regarding workplace culture is “you either teach it, or you allow it.” A company’s intentions regarding culture must always be in public consciousness. You cannot ‘mostly’ create a safe culture and only ‘sometimes’ use derogatory and sexualized language. You cannot ‘mostly’ maintain respectful boundaries and only ‘sometimes’ touch people inappropriately. Everyone under the company roof must be consistent.

Identify what language, behaviors, and policies you are willing to support, and what would be considered a violation. Sexual harassment workshops are often a great place to do this shared thinking and get explicit about what that looks like. All these standards should be aligned with cultural intentions.

There are no days off when it comes to the safety of your people.

“To create a culture of mutual respect you will have to address the issue of sexual harassment… there are no days off when it comes to the safety of your people.” #BedrockEDU

3) Be Accountable

The final key is a safeguard that hopefully will not have to be used, but absolutely needs to be in place. There must be a specific place, or a specific person within your organization, to report concerns. This is generally someone in HR. In early-stage companies, this might fall on the Founder or CEO. If the Founder is not equipped to navigate these waters, then another professional should be clearly identified.

It’s like the life preserver on deck at the pool. You hope you never have to use it, but it has to be there.

When this work is truly successful, it appears in the form of group visibility and accountability processes. While social and professional pressures often make it difficult to stand up to someone who is harassing you or one of your peers, there are plenty of ways to make your sentiments known.

If you are a bystander to sexual harassment, say something directly. It might be as simple as “c’mon man” or “cut it out” or “we don’t do that here”. Normalize calling attention to it. When it’s egregious, be even more direct. When it feels like what some would refer to as a ‘gray area’ then meet it with curiosity. “What did you mean when you said that?” and “how do you think that made her feel?”

Don’t shy away from the conversation. Hold yourself and those around you accountable.

Next Steps

This may be hard to hear… a sexual assault is committed every 68 seconds in the United States alone. Although verbal misconduct might seem innocuous, it plays a role in a tragic and sometimes violent pandemic.

If you’re looking to increase productivity, decrease burnout, improve employee retention, or establish healthy workplace relationships – or if you want to create an ethically obvious situation where there are fewer victims of sexual harassment – then get to work!

This does not happen automatically. Leaders must be specific about their intentions, consistent in their actions, and accountable to their people and their conduct.

The sad truth: the people who need this most probably stopped reading a while ago. So it’s up to you, Reader, to bring this work to life in your space. It’s not always easy, but it is necessary.

If you would like to bring one of our sexual harassment workshops into your space, then REACH OUT. We’d be happy to support.


Cortina, LM and Berdahl, JL (2008)., Sexual Harassment in Organizations: A Decade of Research in Review, 1 The Sage Handbook of Organizational Behavior 469, 469-96.

Sexual Harassment in Our Nation’s Workplaces. Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics (OEDA) Data Highlight No. 2. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Washington, DC, April 2022.

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