In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, New America’s Better Life Lab presented findings that sexual harassment was “severe, pervasive, and widespread” across all industries. It exists equally in both low-income and high-income jobs, and in both male-dominated and female-dominated occupations. It is, unfortunately, everywhere.
That conclusion did not surprise me. What did surprise me was the researchers recommendation for combating the problem. They argue that supply chain reform is perhaps our most potent anti-harassment weapon. In their view, it is critical that businesses leverage their consumer, worker, and corporate power to drive change at the companies they do business with.
As support for their thesis, the authors point to the success of the 2011 Fair Food Program (FFP). The FFP leverages farm workers and consumer pressure to demand that food suppliers take harassment and other workplace abuses seriously. Workers organized to lobby consumers to insist on buying food only from sellers that have been certified as a “Fair Food Farm,” which in turn then pressured Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods to sign agreements promising only to buy from certified farms “with no outstanding wage theft, trafficking, sexual harassment, or other issues.
The FFP has demonstrated considerable success in its first 7 years. Incidents of sexual harassment are reported, investigated, and dealt with. In total, 35 supervisors have been disciplined and 10 have been fired. And over 70% of the participating farms report no sexual harassment incidents despite the greater awareness and sensitivity.
According to the authors, all businesses in all industries have similar supply chain leverage. They recommend the following steps to harness your leverage and begin making a difference:
- Take stock in the businesses you do business with.
- Research what factors are at play in those businesses and industries that contribute to sexual harassment. For some industries, it could be workplace hierarchy. For others it could be lackluster HR policies. For others it could be longstanding cultural assumptions and stereotypes about who belongs in one role or another.
- Make your priorities and values known about sexual harassment and workplace culture. Consider drafting a simple statement on what you expect from your supplier. Or, during your initial conversations when you are vetting a new vendor, have a frank discussion. Ask the vendor if they have a company anti-harassment policy and if their employees get training in recognizing and preventing harassment and discrimination.
- Finally, make it official. Ask your vendors and partners to sign on to an agreement. Make sure that this agreement contains an enforcement mechanism. Consider audit or reporting procedures that will allow you to analyze whether your vendors and partners are meeting your expectations
I know from first-hand experience that these strategies can work. During the many years I spent at “big law,” both as an associate and later as a partner, there were several instances where a potential new client of the firm would ask the firm pointed questions about its philosophy and values. In one case, a Fortune 100 technology company sent their Global Head of Litigation, who happened to be a lesbian, to interview the firm about its commitment to LGBTQ equality. There were several occasions when potential new corporate clients wanted hard data from our firm on women’s issues — most often on the issue of why women were so under-represented among our partnership ranks. When these potential clients raised these issues, it started a conversation. It raised our collective awareness. And it made a difference.
You can make a difference too. You have corporate leverage no matter how big or small your business is because vendors and partners want your business. So harness your leverage and use it to make a difference on issues that matter to you.
You can read the Harvard Business Review article here.
You can read the New America study entitled Sexual Harassment: A Severe and Pervasive Problem here.