Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a flood of alarming reports about powerful men who have engaged in repeated acts of sexual harassment, sometimes stretching across decades. Many women who had previously remained silent or shared their stories only with close friends, have come forward to say that they too have experienced sexual harassment. These stories have sparked a national conversation, but that conversation is unlikely to lead to meaningful solutions unless we address the profoundly undemocratic structure of most workplaces. If a politician is guilty of abuse, at least he can be voted out of office. We now see that the media may be a check on celebrity harassers. But, where does that leave women who work as office cleaners, fast food workers, or hotel housekeepers? At all workplaces, workers need an effective mechanism to hold abusive bosses accountable.
As Vicki Schultz pointed out long ago, sexual harassment is not always about desire, but it is always about power. In order to harass someone, you must have power over them. That’s why the worst offenders are powerful individuals like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes. In the workplace, women are vulnerable to sexual harassment because managers and supervisors have control over their livelihood, and there is nothing resembling the separation of powers to hold the bosses accountable. Sexual harassment is a broad concept that includes many different forms of abuse from unwelcome comments to criminal behavior. Sexual assault in the workplace, which is something that far too many female office cleaners and hotel housekeepers have experienced, is a special problem that may require more attention from law enforcement. These workers are especially vulnerable because they often work in settings where they are isolated. But as we hear about the most egregious abuses, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that less severe forms of harassment can also take their toll on victims. There are many reasons why victims do not report harassment, but one reason is the power imbalance that allowed the harassment to occur in the first place.
Think about a family-owned business. If the boss’s son is a harasser, who are the victims going to complain to? Even in a larger company with a human resources department, a supervisor typically has unchecked discretion to make a worker’s life easier or harder in a dozen different ways. For instance, the supervisor can decide whether or not to report a low-level infraction, who should perform a more onerous task, whether a worker may come in late or leave early, how closely to monitor each worker’s performance, who gets a more desirable schedule, who is offered a chance to work additional hours, who gets promoted, and when someone is allowed to take time off. A supervisor who is reprimanded for sexual harassment will still retain all these forms of discretionary authority. That’s one reason why workers are reluctant to report all but the most severe forms of harassment. When a worker decides whether or not to report harassment, one factor in her calculation is the likelihood that her supervisor will be fired. If the supervisor is not fired, then the cost of reporting the harassment is extremely high for the worker. And when supervisors and managers get away with less severe forms of harassment, they may feel emboldened to engage in even worse behavior.
In many cases there are no witnesses to the offending conduct, and rank-and-file workers generally have little reason to believe that top management will take their word over the word of a supervisor. A union grievance procedure at least gives workers an opportunity to appeal to a neutral decision maker. But in a non-union setting, it is rare, if not unheard of, for an internal process to end with the equivalent of a truly independent judge or jury.
Providing training about “dos” and “don’ts” is not going to end sexual harassment unless employers also take steps to democratize the workplace. At-will employment, the norm in most workplaces, creates an environment that makes harassment more likely. If workers can be disciplined or fired for any reason, they know that workplace survival depends upon currying favor with their boss. In addition, the less discretionary authority a supervisor has, the easier it is for workers to speak up about abuses. It’s easy to criticize seniority-based systems for granting promotions or imposing layoffs, but the certainty provided by those kinds of clear rules makes it easier for workers to speak up about abuses. Giving workers more job security and more rights on the job makes it harder for abusive supervisors to prey on them. As a recent Economic Policy Institute briefing paper has pointed out, research has shown that unions increase the effectiveness of worker protection laws by educating workers about their rights, providing resources and creating procedures for workers to exercise those rights, limiting employer reprisals, and negotiating effective solutions when workers identify abuses.
If we wanted to stop a dictator from abusing the citizens of his country, we wouldn’t just give him a lecture about human rights. Instead, we would work to build democratic institutions in the country. But the basic elements of democracy that we take for granted in this country – the right to free speech, one person, one vote, the right to due process – are absent in most workplaces. If we as a society are committed to addressing the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s time to change that.