It’s Time To Move The Needle On Sexual Violence In Corporate America

Corporations can start to combat sexual violence outside the office walls.
04/20/2017 10:53 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2017
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For anyone who has experienced sexual harassment or other kinds of sexual intimidation to hear that for decades Bill O’Reilly may have repeatedly sexually harassed numerous coworkers while his employer, Fox News, stood by, it may feel like yet another example of sexual harassment and sexual violence not being taken seriously in this country.

But for those who have endured sexual harassment and hostility to then learn that more than 50 major brands – from car companies Mercedes-Benz and BMW of North America to pharmaceutical giants Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline to health care brands Jenny Craig and Advil, took a stand against this conduct by pulling ads from the network, it may have felt like a surge of support, respect and hope. In fact, scores of women were moved to share their stories on social media using the hashtag #droporeilly. On Wednesday, their wish was granted when 21st Century Fox announced that O’Reilly would not return to the network.

This dialogue was especially timely given that April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month is all about educating the public on how together we can build a culture of respect. And a key step in achieving this goal is ensuring that everyone knows what acts fall along the spectrum of sexually abusive behaviors in the first place.

We recently conducted research to learn about the public’s awareness of what acts comprise the continuum of sexual assault and violence. Of particular interest was that the fact that verbal harassment is the least recognized form of these behaviors; only 54 percent of adults surveyed consider “unwanted verbal remarks that are provocative or unsolicited” to be an act of sexual assault.

Awareness of verbal harassment is particularly low among men and younger adults; less than half view it as assault (48 percent of men and 46 percent of 18-34-year-olds). While this act of sexual violence is not illegal, it can be just as threatening, violating or harmful to the person being victimized and contributes to a climate that accepts more violent behavior.

The survey reinforced that we still have work to do on this front – well beyond the walls of Fox News. But the highly visible actions by these major brands have sent a strong message that sexual harassment has no place in the workplace ― or in the world ― and goes a long way in demonstrating this behavior will not be tolerated.

So how else can corporations play a role in ending sexual violence? Corporations must raise awareness within their own workforces that sexual harassment is more than politically incorrect – it’s harmful to individuals, destructive to the workplace and expensive. It can have psychological and physical effects on survivors, negatively impacting work attendance, productivity, use of benefits and longevity. Beyond the personal toll to victims, the estimated annual cost of lost work due to sexual violence is more than $130 million.

In addition to raising awareness, another key step for corporations is to implement responsible HR policies. Effective policies include company-wide training to help all members of the workforce know how to prevent, identify and respond to sexual violence; protection for bystander employees who report information about alleged incidents of sexual violence; clear guidelines for conducting an immediate investigation of harassment allegations; and strong corrective measures for employees who have engaged in a sexual violence incident.

A third way for corporations to engage is to combat sexual violence outside the office walls. Consistent, year-round commitments through corporate social responsibility efforts such as supporting local rape crisis centers, funding research and resources and using influence to encourage elected officials to make effective prevention and treatment policies can also create meaningful change.

Take for example the National Football League, which has strengthened internal policies and invested resources to promote awareness and prevention of sexual violence. Guess Jeans sponsors Denim Day in North America to raise money for sexual violence prevention campaigns, protest violence and raise awareness of misconceptions that surround sexual assault. All corporations can take proactive steps to support sexual violence prevention both internally and as a broader corporate social responsibility priority.

While the major companies showing their support over the past two weeks are to be commended, let’s continue that momentum. By consistently voicing concerns and opposition, refusing to invest resources in those who commit sexual assault and encouraging elected officials and other leaders in the business world to develop and implement effective sexual violence prevention policies, corporations can take meaningful action. With the full weight of the business community – employers, employees and the public they serve – imagine the impact we would have in ending this devastating epidemic.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about the NSVRC and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.

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