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Meeting of 6-20-16 Public Meeting on Proposed Reboot of Harassment Prevention Efforts

Written Testimony of Lilia Cortina
Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies
University of Michigan

Good morning Chair Yang and other distinguished members of this Commission. I am Lilia Cortina, Professor of Psychology, Women's Studies, and Management at the University of Michigan. I have specialized in the scientific study of sexual harassment since the early 1990s, and also taught courses on gender, diversity, and antisocial behavior in organizations. I testified to this Task Force a year ago, and it is a privilege to return today to speak to the full Commission. I applaud the EEOC for convening this Select Task Force to explore new and creative solutions to harassment in the workplace. Given the multitude of harms that accompany workplace harassment, firms throughout the nation have taken steps to prevent this conduct where possible, and correct it where necessary. But still, harassment persists and pervades many places of work. The Task Force has tackled this problem head-on. In their report, the Co-Chairs have marshalled the best scientific and practical evidence available, figured out what we know and where we have gaps, and offered recommendations that are as important as they are innovative. Well done.

Several features of this report are especially noteworthy.

The Nature and Prevalence of Harassment Based on Sex and Gender

The Task Force rightly observed that a great deal of social science has addressed harassment based on sex and gender. For several decades now, we have been assessing the prevalence of sexually harassing conduct across many different organizations - large and small, public and private, urban and rural. We typically measure three varieties of sexual harassment: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. As Comissioner Feldblum noted, these many studies converge on the conclusion that approximately one out of every two women is sexually harassed at some point in her working life.

Among the different types of conduct, gender harassment is by far the most pervasive. Just to be clear, gender harassment is a "put-down" not a "come-on;" this conduct expresses insulting, degrading, or contemptuous attitudes about people of one's gender. Many members of the public do not realize that this is a form of sexual harassment - that is, it is harassment based on sex. But they do not recognize it as problematic, do not include it in their workplace policies and trainings, and do not report it when it happens to them. I commend the Co Chairs for bringing attention to gender harassment in their report.

Let me take a moment to acknowledge that I am mostly focusing on sex -based harassment in my comments. I do this in part because that is what I specialize in, and in part because that has been the focus of most social science research to date. As the Report notes, "there is a great deal we do not know about…harassment that occurs because of an employee's race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation." I could not agree more.

The Need for Intersectional Approaches to the Problem

The Co Chair's report also makes the astute observation that research into "intersectional harassment" has been scarce as well. This refers to harassment based on multiple, intersecting dimensions of difference. All of us hold multiple social identities, which vary in the degree of privilege and power they afford. People with multiple marginalized identities - such as women of color - face a "double whammy of discrimination" rooted in both gender and ethnic prejudices. This sort of "intersectional" perspective complicates research and solutions to harassment on the job, but it mirrors reality, and it is absolutely vital for moving the field forward.

Causes of Workplace Harassment

A common question is "what causes workplace harassment," and a common myth is that this behavior is an aberration, perpetrated by deviant individuals who suffer from some type of obvious psychological problem. However the scientific community widely recognizes that it is organizational conditions, rather than individual traits, that best predict whether employees will harass. Specifically, organizational climate is the single most powerful factor in determining whether harassment will occur and be damaging when it does. As one of my colleagues testified to this Task Force, "[O]rganizational climate is an important driver of harassment because it is the norms of the workplace; it basically guides employees . . . to know what to do when no one is watching" (testimony by Mindy Bergman, June 15, 2015). Organizational climate and culture figure prominently in the Co Chairs' report, and wisely so: this is perhaps the best place to intervene when attempting to scale back harassment on the job.

Employee Responses to Workplace Harassment

To return to a question Commissioner Feldblum asked, what do employees do when harassed at work? Many studies have tackled this question, and the Co Chairs noted a striking finding: employees rarely report harassment to anyone in authority. The primary reasons they cite for not reporting have to do with fear - fear of blame, disbelief, inaction, retaliation, humiliation, ostracism, or damage to their careers and reputations. And we know from research that these fears are all too often well-founded. In particular, social and professional retaliation against complainants takes place at incredibly high rates. So the most reasonable response to harassment in many organizations is not to report it, not to file a complaint, not even to speak informally to management about the problem. To do so can, and often does, take a situation from bad to worse.

Still, reporting mechanisms have been touted as the primary tools organizations should use to remedy workplace harassment. In my expert opinion, there are limits to what reporting on its own can accomplish, as it attempts to root out and punish individual harassers one by one. And most complaint processes fail to address broader systemic problems that fuel hostile work environments. Do not get me wrong - organizations absolutely DO need reporting systems, but these should not stand alone as the only solution to workplace harassment. Instead, as this Co Chairs recommend, reporting systems should be one of many components of a holistic anti-harassment effort. And all of those components should be evaluated, because we need better evidence on what works, in which kinds of organizations, and for which kinds of employees.

A Novel Solution: Workplace Civility Training

For years, I have been advocating that anti-harassment interventions be embedded into broader initiatives to reduce incivility and promote respect in organizations. Workplace incivility refers to rude, condescending, and ostracizing acts that violate social norms of respect, but otherwise appear mundane. Incivility is usually thought of as an identity-neutral behavior, making no overt reference to gender, race, age, or other social category. And courts have emphasized that anti-discrimination statutes are not a "general civility code." However, my research shows that so-called "general incivility" is not always so general after all, sometimes representing a covert expression of bias based on social identity. We also know that, when incivility occurs day in, day out, its ubiquity can alter the conditions of employment and make the victim's job intolerable. So incivility could be a hidden means of creating hostile work environments for members of protected classes.

In addition, everyday incivility seems to go hand in hand with more overt harassment based on social identity: where there is one, you virtually always find the other. It appears that identity-based harassment takes place against a backdrop of generalized derision and disrespect. It could be that incivility acts as a sort of "gateway drug," being a precursor to more egregious forms of abuse. For these reasons, I have proposed that reductions in incivility might help in the reduction of harassment, and I am delighted to see this idea make its way into the Co Chairs' recommendations.

So how do we reduce workplace incivility? We turn to respectful workplace interventions, which for years have helped organizations cultivate climates of civility and respect. These efforts focus on the positive - what employees and managers should do, rather than what they should not do. Strong empirical evidence supports the effectiveness of workplace civility trainings. For example our neighbors to the north in Canada have developed an intervention called "CREW", which stands for Civility, Respect, and Engagement in the Workforce. They have implemented it, tested it, and found meaningful improvements in employee reports of incivility, burnout, trust in management, and absences. Could programs like CREW help with not only workplace incivility, but also harassment based on protected characteristics? Let us find out.

The Need for More Research

One theme that runs throughout the Co Chairs' report is that some topics cry out for more research attention. A problem we run into in the scientific community is a lack of funding for this kind of scholarship. Workplace harassment is currently not a top priority for the federal funding agencies, like NSF or NIH. Some companies fund self-studies, but most do not. A second problem is that, even when researchers have outside funding, organizations will not let us in the door to study them. Some employers are afraid of what we will find, or worry that the results will increase their legal liability. Others are simply unaware, honestly believing that such misconduct would never happen under their roof. Like Commissioner Feldblum and Commission Lipnic, I hope that this report spurs a change in the funding landscape surrounding harassment, and encourages employers to open themselves up to scientific study. With better data on these problems, organizations will be in better equipped to combat them.

Let me close by emphasizing that, over the past 30 years or so, social scientists have learned a great deal about harassment on the job. But, we still have work to do, and miles to go before we sleep. I commend you for this important work you are doing here at the EEOC, and I welcome any questions you may have.

Thank you.