Young Professionals and Sexual Harassment: The New David and Goliath?

By Mary Kaylor11.06.2017

Young professionals are often stereotyped for being demanding, impatient and entitled, but one thing they cannot be labeled is afraid. In fact, they’re pretty much fearless. And this fearlessness is turning the workplace on its head and driving a lot of long-overdue change. 

Case in point: sexual harassment.

Previous generations of women often refrained from reporting incidences of workplace sexual harassment because they were afraid of retaliation. They feared that the consequences would be far worse for them than for their harassers, so they kept quiet and endured it, or found other jobs. “And along the way,” as Chicago Tribune writer Lara Weber wrote in “Can the Millennials Put an End to Sexual Harassment?,” “those predators learned they could get away with it. A few of them became CEOs or movie producers. TV personalities, presidents of the United States.”

Weber added that “Women (and men) I know who are in their 20s wince at the stories we tell of the sexual harassment we’ve brushed off over the years. They say they’d never stand for it, and although that’s easier said than done, I believe them. These are the 3-year-olds who were taught to raise hell if anyone touched them, and now they’re filling the workforce. The silver lining of a generation that became obsessed with trigger warnings and micro-aggressions is that these Millennials also have a no-tolerance attitude toward sexual harassment, which is refreshing and welcome.”

Many of these young professionals are now working in human resources and are helping employers to improve their training, protections and reporting procedures to continue to turn the tide on this problem.

In her blog post “Young Professionals and Workplace Harassment: The New David and Goliath?,” SHRM Young Professional Council member Jillian Caswell says, “With scintillating headlines featuring the dramatic fall from grace of those like Harvey Weinstein, conversations around workplace harassment are quickly becoming more relevant and pertinent than ever. If huge movie production companies with seemingly endless resources could not shield their artists and industry professionals from at best, harassment, and at worst, assault, what are the community-grown small business owners going to be able to do? Employees of any business size have the legal right to work in an environment free of harassment, where they feel safe, and without discriminatory practices. As HR professionals, it is our duty to ensure appropriate and consistent enforcement of these employment laws.”

Regardless of your generational perspective or previous experience with sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s time to ask, “What more can we do?” As a start, consider the following questions:

  • Q1. What plans do you have, if any, to change your sexual harassment policies or training in light of the recent spotlight that has been cast on this problem?
  • Q2. What should supervisors and HR say (or not say) when an employee reports sexual harassment?
  • Q3. How can HR create complaint procedures and environments in which employees are safe from retaliation if they raise or support concerns?  
  • Q4. In addition to annual mandatory sexual harassment training, how can HR provide ongoing education and reminders about behavior and reporting mechanisms, and assurances of non-retaliation?
  • Q5. What are the best ways to assess whether there may be a culture of complicity with sexual harassment in your workplace? 
  • Q6. Do you think young professionals are changing the conversation around sexual harassment in the workplace? How?
  • Q7. How can employers and HR take the conversation to the next level and start talking more loudly and urgently about the sexual harassment problem in the workplace?
  • Q8. As an employer/HR professional, what more can be done regarding sexual harassment in the workplace?   

Reprinted with permission from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).