What can retailers do to prevent sexual harassment?

Dec 06, 2017

Knowledge@Wharton staff

Presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The sexual harassment scandals in Hollywood and Capitol Hill are but a visible proxy for what has long gone on in many other workplaces.

Indeed, according to a Center for American Progress analysis of figures collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2005 and 2015, the two sectors with the highest incidence of reported sexual harassment were hospitality and food service, accounting for 14 percent of complaints. Retail received 13 percent of complaints.

Will the #MeToo discussion encourage individuals in offices, selling environments and warehouses to finally raise claims about treatment while still feeling safe?

Don’t bet on it, says Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of the School’s Center for Human Resources. He said, “It is still very dangerous for employees to challenge leaders in most organizations on anything as consequential as a harassment charge.”

One hurdle is that fact that men often have different standards for what is acceptable. Many wind up rationalizing their bad behavior. But the other challenge is that victims fear speaking up will ruin their careers.

“Many people see HR as the people who defend the company against lawsuits,” said Janice R. Bellace, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics.

Wharton management professor Katherine Klein said companies need a culture that not only makes it clear that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, but “makes it psychologically safe for employees to express concerns, complaints and suggestions.”

Ms. Bellace said HR should be proactive in conveying to supervisors that improper jokes, lewd comments and inappropriately sexual comments are unacceptable in the workplace. For victims, however, avoiding subsequent fallout for coming forward can be difficult, especially in small staffs such as a selling floor.

“Companies need to make statements — and follow up with actions — that say that anyone who feels they are being harassed or disrespected at work should speak to HR and that the company will endeavor to keep the matter as confidential as possible,” Ms. Bellace said. “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.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is sexual harassment as much a challenge for retailers — whether on selling floors, warehouses or in offices — as other industries? What advice would you have for management working to reduce such incidents as well as establishing work environments conducive to addressing complaints?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Businesses including retailers need to set standards so that everyone is clear about what is not acceptable behavior."
"Unless things have changed since I was a retail practitioner, sexual harassment hasn’t been much of an issue."
"Hopefully the current national and open dialog will give people pause to think before they speak or act."

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13 Comments on "What can retailers do to prevent sexual harassment?"

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Paula Rosenblum

Unless things have changed since I was a retail practitioner, sexual harassment hasn’t been much of an issue. Training classes were going on back in the ’90s, with very explicit rules, regulations and penalties. In other words, the industry has been proactive in preventing these kind of abuses from occurring.

As a member of the executive team of several retailers, I knew of very few complaints. The most I can remember is when I first became a project manager back in the early ’80s, a programmer quit because he didn’t want to work for a woman. I never thought twice about it, and neither did my boss.

For once, I think retail has had it right. We have other issues. Harassment just happens not to be one of them.

Bob Phibbs

In all the conferences I speak at, I never see this addressed which is why I wrote this post How To Prevent Sexual Harassment And A Hostile Environment In Your Retail Store.

This past week I was in a slip of a town in Colorado having breakfast when I overheard two women chatting. “Did you hear about Matt Lauer being fired for sexual harassment?” asked the first. The second replied, “Yes, isn’t it awful?” The first woman replied, “Out here we just ignore it.” They laughed and went about their conversation. No one can just ignore it anymore.

Art Suriano
Sexual harassment is a challenge for every business, not just retailers. However, the retail environment presents more opportunities for sexual harassment to take place because of the atmosphere, the hours and often the job itself. It’s not uncommon for two workers to be alone in the stock room or break room, or to be closing the store after everyone else is gone. The problem is that there is no precise definition of what sexual harassment is because we have let it go too long without seriously being addressed. Sure there are training programs, but they are typically a one-time training module that soon is forgotten. Businesses including retailers need to set standards so that everyone is clear about what is not acceptable behavior no matter how innocent someone may think it is if they’re telling an inappropriate joke. Of course, grabbing or touching someone is the obvious thing not to do, but there are other subtle remarks or actions that can be offensive. So training is the solution but on-going training making both sexes aware… Read more »
Kai Clarke

Sexual harassment has been an issue in most business workplaces for a long time. What is remarkable is that so little has been done, despite requiring training and awareness. It may be more obtuse in the entertainment industry, but sensitivity to this, training to prevent it and making the workplace more aware of what is acceptable, are the main keys to ensuring that we continue to move forward to stopping this.

Adrian Weidmann

Sexual harassment is, and has been, a dark problem in all segments. During a recent business conversation with a female colleague, she described an exchange on a teleconference that I found disturbing. When I asked her how that made her feel, she dismissed it by saying that she had been in this business a long time and had heard a lot worse. It’s not acceptable. The status-quo must change. I have no doubt that the retail profession and certainly all the services in the extended ecosystem is plagued by a spectrum of sexual harassment. Hopefully the current national and open dialog will give people pause to think before they speak or act.

Ron Margulis

This really shouldn’t be a question of whether sexual harassment exists more or less in retail as compared to other industries. The question should be whether it exists at all. The answer is yes – it exists in retail and everywhere. Starting from that fact, retailers and everyone else need to understand that social norms do not accept groping, lurid comments, exposing yourself, etc. in the workplace and everywhere else. As for advice, it’s simple — sexual harassment must not be tolerated anywhere, by anyone.

Neil Saunders
Sexual harassment is entirely unacceptable. That’s a message that needs to come from the top and filter down throughout the whole organization. That said, there is a balance to be struck. Unfortunately, there are far too many over-sensitive people jumping on the bandwagon and protesting at the slightest utterance or thing that makes them feel uncomfortable. At a shop the other day, the elderly lady at the register bid me farewell with a jolly “thanks, honey.” As I left, another customer forcefully told me that I should complain as the word “honey” was inappropriate and degrading. This is dangerous ground. It is policing words and ascribing intentions and meaning to them that just isn’t there. It is also extraordinarily petty and, frankly, quite spiteful. But most of all, it detracts from the real and severe issues of genuine sexual harassment. There have to be objective standards as to what is and isn’t acceptable; it cannot just be a matter of people not liking a particular word or phrase or taking offense at every little thing.… Read more »
Joy Chen

Sexual harassment occurs in many work environments. This is no different in retailing. The best way to minimize it in any workplace is it has to start from the top management. Management must make it clear it is not tolerated so that a workplace culture is built to support it. Management will have to walk the talk, meaning they also need to behave appropriately, and also make harsh personnel decisions when sexual harassment occurs. As an example, one of my employees worked for a company where the senior executive was fired due to sexual harassment.

Ralph Jacobson

Just because this issue isn’t addressed very often in our retail industry, doesn’t men it doesn’t exist. I have seen it way back in the ’80s as a store manager, and I’m certain it continues to this day. Ongoing reinforcement of policies, an open-door culture with store management and proactive coaching and feedback with staff helps bring this issue to light.

David Livingston
2 years 2 months ago

Sexual harassment will continue but perhaps in a less subtle and dark way. The same way we have adapted to race and age discrimination. It will happen with no words spoken but rather with actions. I think it will evolve to where both men and women move beyond the sexual part and just call it harassment or bullying. Men suffer just as much but mostly from bullying by those in power, regardless of gender. I used to work in an office with two Daves. The VP was Big Dave and I was Little Dave. How do you think that made me feel? How did others perceive me psychologically, and what are the chances of anyone called “Little” of getting promoted?

Craig Sundstrom

In answer to the question of “worse…?” I would ask what industries? My instinctive response is that it’s likely much better than “food service” or “hospitality,” both of which would seem to offer particular dangers … though from customers more than coworkers (at least I hope “more than coworkers”).

My other thought is how we would categorize a workplace like A&F (or such) that seems to exist to sexualize everything Admittedly my experience with them is limited, and interactions there may be as professional as at a library, but I would think it would be confusing to have company policies on the order of “no suggestive or inappropriate remarks” when “suggestive” and “inappropriate” seems to be the business plan.

Ricardo Belmar

Sexual harassment shouldn’t be any different for retailers as it is for any other business. Standards for conduct should be defined and enforced. Where many businesses fail is that they don’t enforce the standards, allowing improper behavior to go unchecked. In many ways, retailers can be well equipped to execute these policies through training and proper follow up, however, I don’t know that one can say retailers are particularly better or worse than any other industry at doing this overall. If there’s one thing we’ve learned with the #MeToo movement is that no business or industry is immune.

Brian Kelly
2 years 2 months ago
Having served in both headquarters and field, all the human ingredients for troublesome behavior are in abundance. Youth, energy, passion, climbers and power. Managers at all levels face some level of supervisory responsibility. As manager, it is incumbent to set performance expectations by example: it starts at the very top and cascades down through the silos and ranks. In the stores, I found the customer orientation to be a great source for doing the right thing. While romances flourished, fortunately I never encountered a lapse in judgement. At headquarters, late nights, intense schedules and the always on nature of retail certainly gets folks running. Because of the close working relationships, tensions can run high and hurt feelings can manifest themselves in tragic ways. Again, the boss must set the example and address issues immediately and whenever appropriate transparently. I found retail jobs different from corporate jobs because of the terrific diversity fundamental to retail. So while most focus on gender, there are other aspects of humanity that come into play and must be treated with… Read more »
"Businesses including retailers need to set standards so that everyone is clear about what is not acceptable behavior."
"Unless things have changed since I was a retail practitioner, sexual harassment hasn’t been much of an issue."
"Hopefully the current national and open dialog will give people pause to think before they speak or act."

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