BRUSSELS — For the first time, a Belgian criminal court has convicted a man of “sexism in the public space,” for verbally abusing a female police officer who tried to question him after he was seen jaywalking.

The New York Times article goes on to explain Belgium’s definition of “sexism” :

Sexism, according to the law, is defined as “every gesture or deed” that is “clearly meant to express contempt of a person based on sex,” or considers a person inferior based on sex, or reduces a person solely to a sexual dimension, and which “gravely affects the dignity of that person as a result.” Violation of the law can lead to a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to €10,000.

Can you imagine if that law was applied to U.S. workplaces. I’m afraid our prisons would be filled to capacity with sexist male managers and our courts would be rolling in fines. It’s my experience that sexism, as defined by Belgian law, is rampant in companies across America.

But don’t take my word for it. The Kapor Center for Social Impact, with the help of Harris Poll, surveyed people who had left jobs in the tech industry. They found that a workplace that tolerated sexual harassment, Kapor-header-logo-1 bullying, stereotyping, microaggressions, and other types of discriminatory behavior, contributed significantly to people leaving these companies. This was particularly true for men and women of color. They found that:

78% of employees reported experiencing some form of unfair behavior or treatment; Women from all backgrounds experienced/observed significantly more unfairness than men and unfairness was more pronounced in tech companies than non-tech companies.

CareerBuilder and The Harris Poll conducted a survey in which 12 percent of all workers (not only tech) reported sexual harassment in the workplace. Given that the percentage of people who actually report these incidents is quite low (28% according to this survey) and that “sexual harassment” is only one form of inappropriate and intimidating behavior, we can assume that the actual number of incidents of these kinds of behaviors is much higher.

The Kapor Center makes the case that discriminatory behavior in the workplace is costly for companies. The Kapor Center estimates that a culture of unfairness and mistreatment costs the tech industry 16 billion dollars per year. That’s just employee turnover costs. They argue that reputational costs should be considered, also. Once the word spreads that a company has a hostile work environment, it is harder to recruit new employees and that reputation affects business partners and customers.No doubt! The Weinstein Company, once a leader in Hollywood movie production, is now apparently in financial free fall, all starting with the revelation of allegations that suggest a culture within the company that tolerated sexual harassment, bullying, and worse.

However, we should also keep in mind that even in workplaces of low turnover, a hostile environment is just plain wrong. Everybody deserves respect. Nobody should come to work fearful. As Rich Sheridan, author of Joy, Inc., says,

...if fear is systematically removed, then people start to feel safe around each other and their leaders. Trust begins to form, and collaboration emerges and finally teamwork. True teamwork, not just an org chart with tee shirts. People gain productivity and quality through collaboration. Then innovation, imagination, invention and creativity emerge. 

The incidents and high profile firings that make the news, are not one-offs. As we can see from the research, discrimination, especially towards women and people of color, can be found in most companies and in every industry. All companies need to take a look in the mirror and take stock of the policies, activities, and manager behavior that could be contributing to a hostile workplace.