People honoring a boundary by not crossing the painted line

It’s easy for workplaces to assume they’ve done what’s needed to get staff members to behave appropriately when it comes to workplace harassment. After all, they’ve got their anti-harassment and retaliation policies, reporting expectations for managers, and prevention training. But it turns out that most workplaces are falling short in a key area: alignment of expectations related to maintaining professional boundaries.

Establishing clear professional boundaries is considered a potent sexual harassment prevention technique. Maintaining professional boundaries reduces inappropriate conduct thus reducing the likelihood of illegal sexual harassment. It includes stipulating to staff members that they are not to do things like:

  • Tell crude, sexual, or explicit jokes at work, even around co-workers they are friends with outside of work.
  • Share intimate and sexual details about their or a co-worker’s romantic life.
  • Make crude, sexual, or explicit comments about co-workers, bosses, and customers.
  • Share or display crude, sexual, or explicit images, videos, and graphics.
  • Touch or stand too close to a co-worker or customer.
  • Stare at a co-worker’s or customer’s body and clothing.

Unfortunately, data shows that employees, managers, and organizational leaders are not always aligned on this behavioral expectation. In fact, many employees have higher expectations for themselves about maintaining professional boundaries than the expectations they perceive in their company’s culture. This can make it harder for employees to engage in another important sexual harassment prevention strategy—speaking up against harassment and being an upstander for respect.

The following results are derived from a study conducted among a diverse group of learners who completed Atana's Once & For All sexual harassment prevention training:

  • 88% of employees agree maintaining professional boundaries is the right thing to do
  • 82% believe sexual jokes and comments should be addressed 
  • 83% feel that someone in their position should maintain professional boundaries

Yet when it comes to the support employees perceive from others for maintaining professional boundaries only:

Disconnect

Many employees have higher expectations for themselves about maintaining professional boundaries than the expectations they perceive in their company’s culture.

  • 74% feel organizational leaders support them 
  • 74% feel managers support them
  • 68% feel co-workers support them

When this kind of disconnect occurs, employees might understandably adopt the attitude, "I get that maintaining professional boundaries is important... but if my leaders don't think so, why should I bother?" Research has shown that perceived social support is one of the main influences on whether or not a person will put a behavior into action. If employees are to be fully motivated to take actions that maintain professional boundaries, it’s important they sense consistent and wide-spread support for these actions within the organization.  


What day-to-day behaviors need to be encouraged to address employees' perceived lack of support?


 

Support from Co-workers

Because work team members spend most of their time interacting with one another, it’s important that employees feel aligned with co-workers when it comes to maintaining professional boundaries. To ensure this, organizations should emphasize employees’ role in preventing sexual harassment by supporting one another in maintaining boundaries. 

Strategies can include:

1) Providing ongoing training (comprehensive and refresher) that gives employees a common understanding of what it means to maintain professional boundaries.

Atana Client Note:

If you're using Once & For All training, share the results of your training with employees. Use your organization's dashboard data to note the % of employees who want to maintain professional boundaries but feel others might not want to... Read More
  • Video examples like the one below can reinforce a boundary (i.e., that conduct and content of a sexual nature is off-limits) and remind employees that by maintaining boundaries they become upstanders for respect.

2) Reminding employees that in a diverse workplace people’s personal boundaries will undoubtedly be different:

  • Jokes and innuendo that seem innocent to one person may offend another.
  • The sharing of personal life details at work comes naturally to some while others prefer not to share anything personal.

These reminders should stress that one way people show respect for one another and make the workplace safe and comfortable for all is by honoring personal and professional boundaries. Use different messaging techniques (e.g. internal documents/postings in break room) to communicate this expectation. When possible, go beyond sexual harassment training and reinforce these principles in related training such as team building.

3) Ensuring employees know how to give support when a co-worker is the target of harassing behavior. The scenario below illustrates.

Note: Give employees a strategy like ACT (Approach, Care, Talk) to use when showing support for a co-worker who is experiencing harassment. Consider providing opportunities for role play to give employees practice using the technique.

4) Encouraging employees to ask questions if they don’t understand professional boundaries or are confused by “gray” areas.  For example, when it comes to boundaries concerning not touching a co-worker, an employee may ask, “does this mean I can’t even give someone a hug?”  Make sure that the answers employees receive to these questions are consistent, regardless of who is answering them.

 

Support from Managers

Atana research shows that while 95% of managers feel an expectation to reinforce professional boundaries in the workplace, only 74% of employees agree that their managers expect them to maintain professional boundaries. 

Addressing this disconnect involves providing managers with resources and strategies for reinforcing appropriate professional boundaries among their employees and progressing towards healthy group dynamics. This includes:

1)  Providing ongoing training (comprehensive and refresher) that helps managers understand the importance of reinforcing professional boundaries, and what support for maintaining professional boundaries looks like.

Disconnect

Nearly all managers feel they're expected to reinforce professional boundaries, yet many employees don't agree that managers support their efforts to maintain professional boundaries.

Examples like the one in the video clip below show how managers can respectfully put an end to inappropriate behavior.

2) Ensuring your sexual harassment training reminds managers to keep their own workplace behavior within professional boundaries. This could mean not telling jokes that are sexual in nature, avoiding physical touch with employees, keeping the office door open when meeting individually with employees, and always meeting in public spaces when traveling with colleagues.

Atana Client Note:

If you're using Once & For All training, share with managers any data that shows gaps between the % of employees who believe maintaining professional boundaries is the right thing to do and the % who agree managers expect them to maintain professional boundaries... Read More

3) Giving training to managers on how to properly handle a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct. This information can be part of annual training for managers, reinforced during manager meetings with organizational leaders, and embedded into manager performance discussions. 

The mishandling of complaints can send a signal to employees that managers aren’t as committed to preventing sexual harassment as they claim. 

When investigating a complaint, the manager should follow up with the person who brought the complaint forward. While the manager may not be able to provide specific details of the investigation due to confidentiality protocols, it’s important for the employee to understand that the matter is being taken seriously.

4) Teaching managers to initiate (not avoid) uncomfortable conversations. As the clip below shows, to effectively address misconduct and set expectations for respectful professional boundaries, managers must have tough but necessary conversations.

Support from Organizational Leaders

Atana research indicates that among employees 88% agree maintaining professional boundaries is the right thing to do, yet only 74% feel support from organizational leaders to maintain these boundaries.

Perceived organizational support for maintaining professional boundaries is best generated through the organization’s overall sexual harassment prevention strategy.

Disconnect

Many employees have high expectations for themselves about maintaining professional boundaries but feel a lack of support from organizational leaders.

That strategy should involve best practices around a number of key factors, including:

  • Senior leadership commitment to a sexual harassment-free workplace
  • Sexual harassment prevention policies
  • Sexual harassment prevention training
  • Response to sexual harassment complaints

For more on how organizations can ensure sexual harassment prevention efforts are successful, see our post,  A Holistic Approach to Sexual Harassment Prevention.

Atana Client Note:

If you're using Once & For All training and are seeing results that indicate a need for improved organizational support for maintaining professional boundaries, share the data with organizational leaders. Read More

When it comes to maintaining professional boundaries to help prevent sexual harassment, it’s necessary to resolve misalignment between employees’, managers’ and organizational leaders’ expectations. Organizations that take the time to be intentional and consistent about communicating their expectations, and that involve all members of the company in reinforcing them, are more likely to have a culture that is free of sexual harassment.


Atana Client Notes:

1. Co-worker Support
If you're using Once & For All training, share the results of your training with employees. Use your organization's dashboard data to note the % of employees who want to maintain professional boundaries but feel others might not want to.

Dispelling the myth that people want to share/hear sexual content can help shift behavior by reducing perceived peer pressure.

2. Manager Support
If you're using Once & For All training, share with managers data showing gaps between the % of employees who believe maintaining professional boundaries is the right thing to do and the % who agree managers expect them to maintain professional boundaries. This can prompt discussion on what more managers can do to show support.

If there's misalignment between the % of managers who feel they're expected to reinforce professional boundaries and the % who show strong intent to do so, discuss possible barriers to addressing bad behavior.

3. Organizational Support
If you're using Once & For All training and are seeing results that indicate a need for improved organizational support for maintaining professional boundaries, share the data with organizational leaders. Start a discussion around the key factors listed above and where improvements may be needed.

About the Author

Amanda HagmanAmanda Hagman

Amanda Hagman, Ph.D. | Chief Scientist: Behavioral Data Science
Dr. Hagman is an expert in behavior change and intervention science, adept at turning data into practical solutions that drive meaningful change in workplace behaviors. With a background in program evaluation and learning analytics, she uses predictive insights to foster positive behavioral outcomes on a large scale. As head of research at Atana, Dr. Hagman integrates behavioral change principles into training courses tackling common workplace issues. Her work targeting critical behavioral goals is designed to deliver concrete and lasting improvements for organizations.