Sexual harassment: Don’t let first impressions get in the way

The biggest mistake that employers make with workplace harassment is confusing the actions with their personal feelings about an employee.  Our brains rush to categorize the person as either good or bad.  When you really like someone it can be harder than you would think to make the right decision about bad actions.  

Confirmation bias occurs when we would like to believe something to be the case and therefore believe it to be true.  Once we have formed a view, we stop gathering enough information, and we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring or rejecting information that casts doubt on it.  This is why many have had a hard time believing accusations about people they believe are good (like Bill Cosby or Roy Moore).

In a former role, I was a legal HR consultant to large and small businesses. I saw first-hand the impact of confirmation bias in sexual harassment cases.  Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.  For a longer definition, see this post.  

One client of mine was hiring for a maintenance position. Whoever was going to get the job would have keys and access to secure areas, so a background check for this position was routine.  After some time, a promising candidate emerged, but during the background check process they found a statutory rape conviction from three years prior. The employee explained after the background check that the victim was his girlfriend at the time; he claimed he was 19 and she was 16.

How did the hiring manager react?  He was excited to fill the role, had a good first impression of the candidate, and did not want to spend any more time investigating.  Because the manager had mentally placed the candidate into the “good” box. When the background check put this into question, it was too easy for the manager to believe the explanation the employee gave.  The man got the job, and within three months, there were upset customers claiming the employee was peeking underneath doors in the ladies’ changing room.  

We have to move away from categorizing individuals as good or bad.  Instead, we have to accept that even if we like someone or feel sympathy for someone, they are still capable of darkness.  We have to respond to those actions regardless of how we want to categorize the situation.  

We also have to protect against our own unconscious biases, like confirmation bias.  When harassment surfaces at your workplace, and it likely will, focus on the evidence and not your perception of the people involved.  

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