Why Workplace Sexual Harassment Prevention Won't Work

General astonishment

Tracey Spicer and her social media following have compiled a list of 26 ideas for tackling sexual harassment against women in workplaces.

The list includes:

  • Clearly define what comes under the umbrella of sexual harassment
  • Empower HR departments to take action
  • Require organisations to champion instances of abuse, with penalties if they don’t
  • Make sexual harassment a standing agenda item at board/management meetings

I admire Tracey for her commitment to improving workplaces for the better. She has spearheaded an incredible campaign to ‘name and shame’ bullies and workplace sexual predators. Her efforts will make a difference.

But as a workplace psychologist I can tell you that most of the ideas in this list just won’t work.

Here’s a very simple truth about human behaviour: Fear and punishment rarely create change. When we call out and punish bad behaviour we may remove one or two bad apples from the barrel but we won’t create a fresh environment in which the rot can never set in again.

By asking workplaces to seek out instances of abuse and to focus their energy on compliance and prevention you are asking them not to create a culture of respect and equality, which is surely the aim. You are prompting them to create a culture of fear and punishment; an environment in which everyone is watching everyone else, second guessing behaviour, avoiding punishment and working in fear. It is an anxious and unsettling place to be.

By avoiding the mistakes of the past we do not build a better future.

How do we create safer workplaces?

Humans are motivated by ‘approach’ goals - goals that clearly spell out a desired outcome. If we have models of positive, respectful, equal workplaces we can create more of them. If we know what success looks like (and it’s more than the absence of failure) we can replicate it.

There are workplaces in Australia in which women feel safe, respected, recognised and equal. There are workplaces in which leaders understand, model and inspire good behaviour. There are workplaces in which individuals would never think to behave in an inappropriate manner towards a colleague because to do so would mean ostracism by their peers.

These are our positive workplaces. These are the workplaces that should be discussed in the media. These are the workplaces that should be outed for good behaviour and held up as the models to which all organisations aspire.

We need to find and focus on the workplaces that work, learn from them and build on their experience. We need more than rules and punishment because they won’t work - and respect for every individual in our workplaces is too important to get wrong.

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