In the months since the story broke of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long pattern of sexual harassment, boldface names continue to make headlines: Charlie Rose, U.S. Senator Al Franken, Senate candidate Roy Moore, former president George H.W. Bush, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons, and a long list of others have been accused of inappropriate behavior. In February, the University of Pennsylvania removed casino mogul Steve Wynn’s name from campus and revoked his honorary degree in light of alleged sexual misconduct.

Revelations about how women have been treated—a spectrum of transgressions ranging from insensitive behavior to alleged forced sexual contact—have unleashed what could become a reckoning in all sectors. But the #MeToo movement notwithstanding, will anything really change? Is this public discussion leading to structural shifts through which individuals can finally raise claims about treatment in the office or on the factory floor while still feeling safe?

Don’t bet on it, says Peter Cappelli, management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. “I think the big challenge is that we have in recent years moved power away from bureaucracies and rules in companies and toward individual leaders. So we have many institutions where the leaders are all-powerful,” he notes. “The fact that boards of directors in many companies are still chaired by the CEO is one manifestation of putting a leader above monitoring by the organization. How can we make it safe to challenge people in organizations who are so powerful? I don’t see an easy way to do that. I don’t see many company leaders being okay with the ability of individual employees to challenge their behavior or to turn over assessments of their behavior to an independent third party. It is still very dangerous for employees to challenge leaders in most organizations on anything as consequential as a harassment charge.”

Many firms have gutted their HR departments and rely on supervisors to field complaints, points out Janice R. Bellace, professor of legal studies and business ethics. “However, in many cases, the supervisor has been the problem,” she says. “Sexual harassment is often a manifestation of power. The supervisor has power over the employee and can effectively demand that the employee tolerate sexual advances—or worse—or tolerate a hostile working environment. To whom should the employee complain when the supervisor is the problem and there is no HR office?”

Absent HR or an ombudsman, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? she asks—who will guard against the guardians?

The Power of Self-Delusion

One striking aspect of responses from the recent crop of men accused of sexual misconduct is the visible process of them grappling with what they did as wrong, says management professor Katherine Klein, vice dean of Wharton’s Social Impact Initiative. “We are hearing those statements over and over again—‘I am reckoning with what I did’—and our first instinct may be to regard such statements as disingenuous. But I suspect there’s a significant element of truth here. At least some of these men are coming to grips with how harmful their behavior has been. So an important question is how do you interrupt that self-delusion and correct that behavior at the very start of the slippery slope—not decades after the fact?”

In order to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, “You need a culture that makes it clear that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated,” she says, “and at the same time, you need a culture that makes it psychologically safe for employees to express concerns, complaints, and suggestions. … Everything we know about organizational culture says the message has to come from the top, and it has to be believable. Responding after the fact, after your company has ignored it—there are going to be real questions about where you were years ago when the complaints first emerged.”

According to Klein, while it’s obviously necessary to have a sexual harassment policy, it’s not always easy to be clear about what constitutes sexual harassment. “There are gray areas where people are uncertain if a given behavior crosses the line,” she says. “So it’s important that people can and do feel safe enough and supported enough to speak up when they feel uncomfortable with someone’s behavior. We can all agree that repeated unwanted sexual touching is harassment. But if someone pats you on the upper back when he or she says hello or gives you a compliment, is that harassment? If the recipient feels uncomfortable, I would hope he or she could bring that up to someone at work to explore and resolve the situation.”

A common characteristic of sexual harassment, she says, is that it tends to escalate. “When a man sexually harasses a woman, his behavior may become more egregious and aggressive over time. For example, several of the women who reported that Charlie Rose harassed them said that he began by putting his hand on their legs. This seemed to be a test of how they would respond. If you have a workplace culture in which people are comfortable speaking up, where they can say, ‘Hey, this makes me feel uncomfortable,’ you may be able to prevent some of these behaviors.”

The Power Dynamic

What can companies do to make sure victims feel safe coming forward and that they aren’t further hurt by the subsequent fallout? “This is difficult, especially in small companies,” says Bellace. “Companies need to make statements—and follow up with actions—that say that anyone who feels he or she is being harassed or disrespected at work should speak to HR and that the company will endeavor to keep the matter as confidential as possible. But the company cannot promise confidentiality. After all, it must investigate the complaint, and in a small work group, it will be obvious who is complaining about whom.”

The overwhelming majority of sexual harassment in the workplace takes the form of transgressions by men against women—but not all. One study that analyzed sexual harassment complaints led with equal-opportunity commissions in Australia over a six-month period found that 78 percent were female complaints against males. But women were accused of sexually harassing other women nearly six percent of the time, with women harassing men in five percent of cases and men accusing other men in 11 percent of cases.

The study points to the fact that power is often at the root of sexually harassing behavior. “The majority of complaints in all four groups were lodged against alleged harassers employed in a more senior position,” wrote Paula McDonald, professor of work and organization at Queensland University of Technology, with Sara Charlesworth in “Workplace Sexual Harassment at the Margins,” published in Work, Employment and Society. “This was particularly noticeable in female-to-female complaints, where nine in 10 complaints were made by subordinates against supervisors. Consistent with existing research, in many of these complaints women performed as ‘honorary men,’ adopting sexualized banter to maintain authority and ‘fit in’ with the dominant male gender culture.”

One bright note in changing attitudes about gender roles in the U.S. workplace has recently emerged. Breaking a decades-long preference for male bosses, Americans are now indicating that they don’t feel partial to a man or a woman. Since the early 1980s, the majority of both male and female respondents to a Gallup poll have said they would rather have a male boss. But in an early November phone poll with a random sample of 1,028 U.S. adults age 18 and older, 55 percent said they had no preference, and those who did were evenly split among men and women. (The poll has not yet started to account for bosses or workers who don’t identify as either traditional gender.) Gallup says this shift may be a reaction to “the seemingly endless stream of sexual harassment allegations against men in workplaces across many industries.”

Hope For Lasting Change

Despite the recent wave of consciousness-raising, a heavy burden still falls on any employee who faces harassment and wants to do something about it. Bellace’s advice: “Employees should keep a record of everything that disturbs them. Write it down, and keep it on your home laptop—the date and time and what happened. Often a [victim’s] complaint sounds vague or generalized, and her complaint is dismissed. A heavy burden still falls on any employee who faces harassment and wants to do something about it. But if she can say that on a specific date he said X, and a week later he sent an email that says Y, and three days later he left a voicemail where he said Z, that shows a pattern. The specificity of the complaint will indicate the seriousness and credibility of the complainant.” Complaints, if possible, should either be made in writing or followed up via email, she says.

HR should not simply sit back and wait for complaints, she adds: “Many, many people are fearful that if they contact HR, their career will be harmed. Many people see HR as the people who defend the company against lawsuits, not as the people who monitor the workplace and seek to enforce rules and norms of appropriate behavior. HR should convey to supervisors the need to be alert to inappropriate behavior and to nip it in the bud. There are many cases where supervisors were aware of improper jokes, lewd comments, and inappropriately sexual comments on social media and yet did nothing. That’s where HR can be proactive. HR needs to convey to supervisors that it is part of their job to make sure conduct at the workplace is appropriate.”

Bellace says that many women just want the behavior to stop: “They will complain and [then] say, ‘But I don’t want anything to happen to him,’ or ‘I don’t want anyone to know.’ This is an impossible request to accommodate. HR must explain why.”

But one study showed that when a perpetrator gains greater awareness of the effect on the victim, he might be less likely to engage in future harassing behavior. In that study, 119 male and female participants read a neutral text or a description of a sexual harassment case written from either the female target’s or the male perpetrator’s perspective. They were then asked to complete scales measuring their own levels of sexual harassment myth acceptance (SHMA)—the use of bogus rationalizations to justify bad behavior. Male participants were asked to gauge their own likelihood to sexually harass (LSH). “The target’s perspective led to lower SHMA and to lower LSH than did the neutral text, whereas no such effect was found for the perpetrator’s perspective,” according to Charlotte Diehl, Tina Glaser, and Gerd Bohner of Bielefeld University in “Face the Consequences: Learning About Victim’s Suffering Reduces Sexual Harassment Myth Acceptance and Men’s Likelihood to Sexually Harass.”

Perhaps the torrent of testimony by current victims that’s streaming through media will be similarly effective. Says Klein: “One of the videos I watched was of a woman who reported that Roy Moore harassed her when she was a teen. She cried throughout the video in describing what he did to her 40 years ago. It was very powerful to see how this memory still disturbs her. Perhaps seeing videos like this one will help people grasp how deeply disturbing and degrading is it to be sexually harassed. The scars don’t go away. They can last for decades.”


Published as “How Can Firms Prevent Sexual Harassment?’” in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Wharton Magazine.