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How to measure a workplace's sexual-harassment risk

What if there was a way for an organization to measure its sexual-harassment risk? What if it was possible for an employee (or prospective employee) to determine whether a specific workplace is at high risk for sexual harassment?

A tool for evaluating sexual-harassment risk already exists.

Professor Louise Fitzgerald at the University of Illinois-Chicago has developed a widely used method for measuring the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace. In her model, Fitzgerald identifies factors that place a workplace at higher risk for sexual harassment.

Let's look at those risk factors.

1. Ratio of men to women

This factor is simple: what is the ratio of men to women in an organization? This applies to:

  • The total number of men and women in an organization
  • The number of men and women in leadership positions

When the ratio is out of balance, the likelihood of sexual harassment increases. 

2. Who holds the power?

The risk of sexual harassment in a workplace isn't only about total numbers. It's also about who holds power. Under Fitzgerald's model, the U.S. Congress is at high risk for sexual harassment. In congressional offices, half of the staff members are female. In those offices, however, women are more likely to have lower-ranking positions.

When power is out of balance, the conditions can be ripe for "superstar harassers," a term that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses to describe individuals who believe the rules do not apply to them.

3. How complaints are dealt with

The third risk factor is what happens after sexual harassment occurs. In an organization that is at high risk for harassment, the following apply:

  • Lack of clear procedures for handling complaints
  • A belief that harassers will not be punished
  • A belief that victims will face career repercussions if they report the improper conduct

Once again, Congress is an example of how not to do things. When a congressional staffer reports a sexual harassment incident (but before he or she files a complaint), that person must undergo two months of counseling. Then the victim must wait 30 more days before filing a complaint. This process sends the message that harassers will not be held accountable for their actions.

If you have questions about sexual harassment in the workplace, speak with an attorney who understands this area of employment law.

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