3 Steps Companies Should Take to Address Sexual Harassment Risks: A Q&A With NAVEX Global’s Ingrid Fredeen

NAVEX Global's Vice President of Online Learning Content on social media's role in sexual harassment awareness and the questions companies and executives need to be asking themselves today.


In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released a comprehensive study of workplace harassment in the U.S., which concluded that “anywhere from 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” Unfortunately, fear of retaliation prevents many of these women from speaking out. “One 2003 study found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation,” the EEOC report found. But sexual harassment in the workplace is in the news now more than ever – with executives stepping down at a shocking rate. Where did the momentum come from and how should employers respond?

Ingrid Fredeen, J.D., Vice President of Online Learning Content at NAVEX Global has been specializing in ethics and legal compliance training for more than ten years. FEI Daily spoke with Fredeen about why sexual harassment victims are finding their voices now more than ever and how executives can proactively protect and empower their employees.  

FEI Daily: When it comes to the acknowledgement of sexual harassment in the workplace, what’s different now than ten, even five years ago?

Ingrid Fredeen: Social media. It's changed the way we communicate, but it has, in a very fundamental way, changed the way we can get support for our own position, or our own challenge. You can get a sense of ‘I'm not alone. People believe me.’

Imagine six or seven years ago, trying to get the CEO of Uber fired, or Harvey Weinstein fired because you brought some complaint forward. Well, that's the story that these organizations have covered for years. They've had reports. Now, there's this shifting dynamic and it's called public pressure.

To me, that's what's very different about this. There will be hundreds of “Harveys” that will come out of the woodwork, right? But what's different is that we've changed. The individual has changed the way they communicate. They have a position of power where it's not an internal issue anymore, it's very public and it forces executives to take action that they should've taken otherwise.

This is a human issue, right? You see men stepping forward and supporting women. You are starting to see that and then you're starting to have men in the entertainment world say me too. It's pretty powerful. 

FEI Daily: What’s a misconception about sexual harassment complaints that frustrates you?

Fredeen: There is an assumption that someone who makes a report is a gold digger. They're looking for money. They're looking to sue. The truth is, often times, they feel like they've been wronged and they want it fixed. They're not looking to just make a million dollars, or $100,000 or whatever it is, they really are saying I just want the right to work.

FEI Daily: What can executives do to ensure their employees feel respected and safe?

Fredeen: Executives need to understand that one of the major risk factors an organization has on its checklist is it a male-dominated environment. That's what you see in the tech space. That's what you see in finance, on Wall Street. There are a number of industries. In those industries, sexual harassment is about power and this idea that you can get away with something because you hold power over someone. For decades that's been true. What the twist that social media and this concept of everyone banding together in a community brings is that people can speak out and force change.

Organizations really need to take some time and ask themselves the question: Are we next? Are we the environment in which intolerance is okay? Where we've had people who have been accused of misconduct and we haven't done anything to help them? Where we don't care what our employees think or do, we just want them to do their job.

Culture is super important. Culture is ‘the way things get done around here.’ Not the rules. Not the policy. It's how things actually get done in a workplace. We all know that they are, especially in these toxic environments, very different from what's written in a policy. Asking yourself that question, and not just yourself, but people below the C-suite level or the executive level. Ask what the environment is really like and then be prepared to take action to correct it.

The second thing is have a reporting mechanism that actually works. When someone reports an issue, it's investigated. It's treated with the level of severity and dignity that it should. Action is taken where needed. And if you don't know how to investigate, get training.

The third thing is change the mindset around reporters. People who bring complaints forward aren't whiners. But we learn this from a very early age, right? Don't tattle tale. People who speak up are courageous. Think about the times when something has happened to you and you have chosen not to speak up. Why? Because you personally fear the repercussions. People who speak up have said I don't care what the repercussions are, this is a big enough deal to me. We need to understand that people who report aren't problems. They are not complainers, and they should be respected for speaking up. 

FEI Daily: How do you respond to men who are now afraid to mentor women?

Fredeen: First of all, discrimination is illegal. Plain and simple. If a manager says, "I will mentor men but I won't mentor women," that's baldy, flatly discrimination. It changes your opportunities, it changes your access, it changes your ability to influence. It is a major impediment to succeeding. But right now, men are freely saying this. It really blows my mind. 

Let's say you're legitimately afraid of meeting one-on-one with females. You don't want to go to dinner and you don't want to have meetings. Great. You treat every person you mentor exactly the same. If you're not going to take females to dinner, you're not going to take men to dinner. You're going to meet with people in the office, it's going to be professional, you'll have your door open, you'll have two people present.

FEI Daily: What advice would you give to a younger woman in the office who are concerned about losing the opportunity to have a male mentor?

Fredeen: This is untested, but this is something that's been percolating in my mind in the last month or so. I went to a conference and listened to a keynote, he's a neurobiologist who does a lot of work with behavior change and narcissists. It was very interesting. One of the things he talked about, and it wasn't in the context of harassment, is, as people progress in their careers, they lose the ability to be empathetic. As they go up the ladder, studies show that they become less empathetic. That means they don't understand your point of view. When I think about executives, they don't understand the point of view of a young female wanting to have access. I believe that there’s something there, where a female can advocate for herself by explaining the world from her perspective to her manager.