Did you know that more than a third of American women in tech say their appearance has been inappropriately commented on, or that 37% of men have been sexually harassed? Big claims of workplace harassment have taken over news headlines the last several months, making them nearly impossible to miss. However, what is sometimes lost on the casual news consumer is that this unacceptable problem is not limited to severe incidents or ones that involve celebrities. No industry is immune, and that’s why sexual harassment in information technology is something that must be taken seriously and addressed by companies and hiring managers alike. The overall goal must be to create a healthy, open workplace environment, and there are several steps that can accomplish that task.
Addressing tech industry harassment requires creating strong policies, but first it’s necessary to understand the makeup and history of the field. Men comprise 74% of the IT workforce, and when it comes to CIO positions in Fortune 500 companies, women only hold 17% of them. This can create a drastic power imbalance that unfortunately has led not just to incidents of harassment and gender discrimination in the tech industry, but to women leaving the IT field at nearly double the rate of men. Despite this disparity, policies must be created with the intent to prevent all forms of harassment and protect all employees, regardless of gender.
To address workplace harassment in technology and its widespread repercussions for both women and men, simply checking legal boxes is not enough. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is an authority on policy creation and found that previous efforts to reduce workplace harassment have focused too much on legal liability. They have recently released two new harassment prevention programs and guidelines that can provide excellent workplace harassment strategies for companies looking to overhaul their policies. At the same time, every organization has a responsibility to consider their own unique environments, identify areas that could be conducive to sexual harassment (such as a dark employee parking lot removed from the building) and create policies accordingly.
Of course, creating ironclad harassment policies will be meaningless if all employees, regardless of whether they are in IT roles, aren’t educated through robust and regular training. Studies show that 98% of U.S. companies have a harassment policy in place, but 22% of employees don’t even know if one exists at their organizations. In addition to disseminating them in training sessions, policies should be made digitally available, printed and pasted up in break rooms, and handed out in paper form on a regular basis. The goal is to make sure employees understand what the policies are, know how to react if they experience or witness harassment, and are comfortable in an environment of support and encouragement.
While creating a safe environment is progress, it also means IT hiring managers will be under increased pressure to not only hire the tech pro who can get the job done but one who does not present a risk. Competition for talent in IT is extremely high. It can be tempting to offer a highly skilled tech pro a role before completely exploring their personality and background. However, the legwork of calling references, verifying credentials, and even running background checks is of the utmost importance. A reported 56% of employers have caught a lie on a resume, and even discovering one “small” fib could be a red flag to consider rather than write off just because they have a stellar skill set.
Ultimately, hiring managers are gate keepers. While nobody can read a candidate’s mind and know when a tech pro with a spotless record and sound references acts out of character, it is the hiring manager (among others) who will be scrutinized if something goes wrong. Proper vetting is so important, not just because it limits bad seeds from entering the culture and endangering the workforce, but because it serves as proof that the hiring manager went through all the correct steps when hiring and did not ignore any red flags.
Even the best policies and most educated workforces can’t prevent 100% of workplace harassment. Should something occur, it’s necessary to react rapidly. The appropriate managers can report and document incidents as prescribed, and the situation can be elevated as necessary. Not only does this prove that a workplace culture is one that is intolerant of harassment, but it helps to avoid hefty fines and legal ramifications. Even when a tech pro’s questionable behavior doesn’t expressly violate a policy, it should be addressed to prevent it from growing and turning into something more severe.
Workplace harassment, and sexual harassment in particular, is an epidemic that has been slowly growing across industries. When 78% of women IT startup founders report that they have been harassed or know someone who has, and with harassment cases filed by men in IT increasing sharply as well, it’s clear that the time for action has come. Failing to enact policies, educate all employees, and react quickly is not an option for tech companies and IT hiring managers wishing to maintain a positive culture and avoid becoming yet another name in the headlines.
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