Six Questions: How to detect sexual harassment?

On Saturday, as sexual harassment continued to make national headlines, the Yakima Herald brought the issue home to the agricultural community in WA state. The article pointed out the challenges with farmworkers reporting harassment, and mentioned some resources for prevention.

If you missed the first three questions in our "Six Questions" series, you can see them here. Today we’ll explore question #4:

How can we detect and encourage reporting of sexual harassment?

With seventy-one percent of victims deciding that the risks of reporting sexual harassment outweigh the benefits, employers have a challenge on their hands.

A 2016 study published in the Harvard Business Review cites three key reasons employees may not speak up--fear of retaliation, the “bystander effect” (where one is less likely to help a victim if others are present), and a masculine culture in which sexual harassment is seen as acceptable.

The author of this study had a couple key recommendations, starting with including “bystander training” in your sexual harassment training. This recommendation could be particularly powerful in agriculture where the fear of speaking up runs so deep:

“Bystander training (rather than typical sexual harassment training which focuses on what to do if you are harassed) focuses on what you should do if you see someone else being harassed. This involves four steps: make observers aware of the problem so they can identify it when they see it, teach observers that help should always be given, increase accountability of the observer so they know that they responsible to help, and inform observers of the process for intervening.

Organizations should encourage all observers to report or intervene when they’re aware of an issue, but it’s worth noting that interventions might be particularly effective when initiated by men. Particularly in male-dominated fields, appealing to men to speak up and stop tolerating this behavior may be a key way of reducing sexual harassment.”

The study also emphasized the importance of developing accessible and clear reporting systems. What works in an office environment where everyone speaks the same language and doesn’t fear deportation, won’t necessarily work in agriculture. Solutions we’ve seen growers use include:

  • Hotline - company-run or third-party

    • Pro's: Allows low-level employees to bypass middle management and alert HR executives of a problem. Can allow for anonymity

    • Con's: Company-run or Labor Contractor-run hotlines have had very few callers, even when there are known issues, due to lack of trust. Partnering with a local community organization that has the trust of both the farmworker community and the growers (and can commit to confidentiality with both parties) could make this option more effective.

  • Surveys

    • Pro's: By including many/most employees, you can get a sense of trends and give employees more comfort that their comments will be blended with others and remain anonymous.

    • Con's: It is difficult to take remedial action on anonymous information, but generalized data could point you in the direction you need to go to investigate more or provide more training

  • Farm worker communication committees. A group of farmworkers elected by their peers, excluding foremen and with a balance of women and men

    • Pro's: can provide a powerful & essential communication channel between workers and management that leads to all sorts of productivity, culture and food safety improvements

    • Con's: can be time consuming and there's a need to educate management and workers on the difference between a communication committee and a union to avoid fear & conflict

We’ve talked with more than one company who feared what they would find out if they had truly robust and trustworthy communication systems with their field-level colleagues. But a head-in-the-sand strategy is no way to tackle high turnover and legal liability. So we’d love to hear from you:

What have been effective ways you’ve found to increase communication between your workforce and decision makers at the top, particularly strategies that allow workers to bypass foremen?