Sexual harassment prevention in the workplace has been getting a lot of attention – both in the news and in business.

After offering training on sexual harassment prevention for many years, the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights has noticed a large uptick in interest this year, not only from state employees who are required by law to complete such training, but from the private sector, too.

“While we have seen a large number of sexual harassment complaints come in, we’ve also seen more employers reaching out to get ahead of it,” said Spencer Dove, an executive associate with the commission.

What if employers ignore it? Your business potentially faces not only the cost of a lawsuit, but deeper-gouging costs related to retention and recruitment of staff and a tarnished reputation that repels customers.

As much has sexual harassment has captured the headlines this year, it’s hard to pin a price tag on it, though everyone from human resources experts to the U.S Senate to human rights advocates are calling for more research on what those costs might be. Clearly, the costs are mounting.

A 1988 survey, answered by personnel and human resources directors and equal opportunity offices representing 3.3 million employees at 160 corporations, found that a typical Fortune 500 company lost $6.7 million a year because of absenteeism, low productivity and staff turnover as a result of sexual harassment.

In 1994, the Merit Systems Protection Board estimated that, over the course of two years, sexual harassment in the federal workforce cost the government a total of $327.1 million as a result of job turnover, sick leave, and decreased productivity.

In 2017, the human resources consulting firm ERC estimated that, assuming that a sexual harassment claim is settled out of court, the average cost to an organization runs anywhere from $75,000 to $125,000.

How can businesses avoid these costs?

Eileen Levitt, president of the Columbia-based The HR Team, Inc., recommends three steps: have a policy, follow that policy, and train your managers and employees.

If this sounds over-simplified, ask yourself what your company’s policy on sexual harassment is and what it means. Is it something you blindly signed online, perhaps after sitting through a slide presentation and checking a box?

That type of training doesn’t work, agreed Levitt and many others in the field. “The reality is that we have to change behaviors,” said Levitt. “As an organization, we have to hire people that have behaviors we want to emulate.”

Nurturing a healthy workplace

Instead of thinking of sexual harassment as a hopelessly inevitable fact of office life, start thinking about a mindful approach to developing your team’s capacity to prevent harassment in the first place, suggested Sarah Rowell, CEO of Kantola Training Solutions, a company that has trained more than 13,000 organizations in sexual harassment prevention in the last five years.

Look at it more like an investment in your organization’s immune system,” Rowell said. “Take that preventive approach right up front.”

Kantola uses story-based training that, through sophisticated instructional design, truly puts people in each other’s shoes. One of the many important concepts Kantola focuses on is “bystander intervention,” or ways to support your coworkers when you witness harassing behavior.

The key to good training is real-life scenarios, agreed Tara Taylor, director of Education & Outreach for the Maryland Commission On Civil Rights. Taylor also recommends having clear timeframes in policies that outline when a response to a complaint should be expected. “Most state agencies have to investigate and respond within 30 days,” she said. “But private businesses and nonprofits don’t always have a clear timeframe.”

A common mistake by employers is retaliation against the alleged victim for complaining, Taylor added. “Sometimes employers are unconsciously retaliating,” she explained. An example? Moving alleged victims away to another job or another location to “protect” them.

Finally, Taylor said, if you have never received a complaint of any kind related to sexual harassment, ask yourself: do people feel comfortable complaining?

A new era

Sexual harassment has been around a long time, pointed out Amy Polefrone, president and CEO of the HR Strategy Group in Ellicott City. “It’s illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII,” she said. Yet, until comparatively recently, sexual harassment prevention training was a “check-the-box” routine.

At its heart, good training should be about gathering people together to answer a positive question: what kind of workplace do we want to have?

As the millennial generation and younger generations enter the workforce, they are increasingly choosing workplaces in which harassment of any kind is unacceptable. And, perhaps in part due to anti-bullying training they’ve had in their school years, this generation is proficient at identifying and combating harassment on the spot.

“Readiness training” in sexual harassment prevention seems key to creating a team that protects each other. It’s time, said Polefrone: “Dust off your policy, and ask yourself: how do we respond?”