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by Jenny R. Yang, Senior Fellow, Urban Institute, and Batia Katz, Research Assistant, Urban Institute 

This blog by was originally published on the Urban Institute website on April 15, 2020.

Millions of Americans are working on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, from health and home care workers to food service employees to grocery store cashiers. Nearly 17 million workers have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment insurance in recent weeks. Together, high stress and crisis conditions at work and the surge in economic insecurity and job loss raise new concerns about sexual harassment and assault.

Nearly 70 percent of the global health workforce are women, and they are at risk of harassment and abuse from colleagues and patients. As workers across industries become increasingly vulnerable to job loss, they may be less likely to raise concerns or file complaints. And as organizations downsize, fewer people may be available to play an active harassment prevention oversight role.

Compounding these problems, governmental agencies and law firms have shuttered their physical offices and shifted to remote work, and the courts have discontinued jury trials and delayed justice to address safety concerns from the virus.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an important time to consider longer-term strategies to address sexual violence at home and in the workplace—especially this April, as pandemics can incite or exacerbate violence against women. Pandemics can break down social infrastructure, which can lead to unsafe conditions and exposure to sexual violence and harassment. In addition, the health care system is overwhelmed, leaving many survivors without access to the medical care or counseling they need to recover.

Creating safe and inclusive work environments in times of crisis

Now, more than ever, organizational leaders have a critical role in creating safe and inclusive working environments. The science and technology fields are essential to pandemic recovery, and ensuring harassment-free and inclusive work cultures is fundamental. Last fall, the American Geophysical Union, the National Women’s Law Center, and the Urban Institute, with support from the Aspen Institute Forum on Women and Girls, cohosted a convening on workplace harassment in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Although many organizations promote training and education to encourage women and people of color to enter STEM fields, participants agreed STEM employers need to do more to share knowledge and evidence on what works to prevent harassment and create work environments in which workers from underrepresented backgrounds can thrive.

Although this pandemic presents many new risks for organizations, this can also be the time to look forward and adopt strategies to reduce harassment and prevent assault during the pandemic and over the long term. The convening and our accompanying report identified five promising practices organizations can undertake to address and prevent sexual harassment in STEM. But sexual harassment is a problem across industries, and the lessons apply to other fields as well.

  1. Evaluate organizational climate and risk factors for harassment to end the culture of silence and understand the scope and nature of concerns.
  2. Create multiple safe avenues for workers to come forward and raise concerns. With workers’ consent, champion those who do come forward to support employees and normalize reporting.
  3. Provide regular tailored and interactive training that reinforces organizational values and encourages behavioral change to prevent and intervene when harassment occurs. Reinforce training throughout the year.
  4. Increase transparency within and outside the organization to demonstrate employees’ use of complaint mechanisms and that disciplinary and other actions are taken to address concerns.
  5. Establish clear mechanisms to promote accountability and develop change management plans to implement organizational culture changes.

Understanding employee concerns as work changes

In this time of increasing economic uncertainty, workers may be particularly reluctant to submit complaints through existing formal channels. Proactive efforts to assess organizational climate and culture are critical to understanding worker concerns, and alternative channels for reporting incidents, including more informal channels for troubleshooting concerns, could be important for some organizations as work becomes more decentralized.

Tools like organizational climate surveys and virtual focus groups can help employers better understand the current harassment issues facing their organization, as well as risk factors for problems on the rise. During the pandemic, employers should be especially vigilant about monitoring workplace climate, as workers are forced to quickly adapt to new, stressful working conditions that may increase risk of harassment. And especially during this pandemic, engaging workers in finding solutions to harassment and other workplace problems is critical.

Although we can’t predict the full impact of this pandemic—as many businesses close and others struggle for survival—employers in a position to rebuild have an important opportunity to promote equity and make progress toward long-term solutions to workplace harassment, including developing tailored and interactive training, increasing transparency, and implementing clear accountability mechanisms.

Thomas Tolstrup/Getty Images