Sexual harassment is a growing issue across society. While much progress has been made as a result of movements such as Time’s Up and #MeToo in revealing the prevalence of harassment and abuse across multiple industries — there remains a long way to go.
Nobody should have to experience sexual harassment, and certainly not in the workplace. As employers, you have a duty of care to all your employees to prevent such unethical dilemmas from happening across your organisation. Yet sadly, despite the many recent headlines and the growing awareness around this issue there is clear evidence about Australian workplaces that shows this isn’t happening.
According to the Australian Sex Discrimination Commission’s 2018 sexual harassment survey of 10,000 people, 39% of Australian women and 26% of Australian men had been sexually harassed at work in the five years leading up to the survey, with young people between the ages of 18 and 29 the most likely to be sexually harassed at work.
These figures are alarming and can lead to a negative workplace culture with a hostile work environment, low employee morale, reduced productivity and an increase in absences.
Sexual harassment is a gender-neutral offense that presents itself in many forms and with varying degrees of misconduct. Identifying sexual harassment can be difficult, and one of the main challenges organizations face in preventing it is ensuring that their employees understand the grey areas of sexual harassment and knowing where to draw the line.
Preventing sexual harassment at work is everyone’s responsibility, which is why by following the three steps outlined below you can significantly reduce the risk of sexual harassment occurring in your workplace by helping your people understand what constitutes sexual harassment and empowering them to speak up.
There are three steps that organizations can focus on how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace:
1. Ingraining the Right Behavior in New Recruits
When new employees commence working in an organisation, they bring along with them what they’ve learnt in their careers and through their experiences in interacting with others. They may have never been formally educated about sexual harassment or have come from a workplace where casual sexual remarks or jokes were identified as part of the workplace culture. This lack of awareness of desired organisational culture, if not addressed will lead them to believe that this behavior is normal and acceptable.
Understanding, agreeing and accepting your organization’s policy on sexual harassment as a part of the induction program is instrumental in ensuring that the new employees comprehend the meaning of acceptable workplace behavior. The policy needs to clearly outline behaviors that are not acceptable and the consequences of breaching the policy. This should be followed with comprehensive training to develop an understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment. The training needs to be engaging, specific and relevant to your workplace. It should incorporate different scenarios that may occur in your workplace environment so that they know what to do if they are ever in a similar situation. Scenarios need to be obvious and cover the grey areas, such as complimenting someone’s appearance, telling a joke or tagging a colleague in a post on social media. Employees need to have a clear understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable however minor the situation.
2. Maintaining Employee Awareness of Expected Conduct
It is important that all employees are regularly reminded of the organisation’s expectations of their conduct. An on-going awareness campaign that comprises of training and short and sharp mobile-friendly tools such as two-minute videos, is an easy and efficient way to communicate reminders about appropriate conduct across your entire organization. Without reminders, it’s easy to conflate right and wrong ways to behave – especially with the grey areas.
As part of the ongoing awareness campaign, employees should be trained on and encouraged by their managers and peers to be role models for good behavior, call out inappropriate conduct as it happens and report it, if need be.
3. Educating Managers on How to Handle Reports of Sexual Harassment
Victims or witnesses of sexual harassment need to feel confident in knowing the process to report an incident and have the trust that their report will remain confidential. They need to feel safe, protected from retaliation, have an atmosphere of care and concern at the workplace so they feel that their workplace takes their report seriously however small the incident maybe.
Managers, therefore, need to be trained on how to respond to a report of harassment, know what is expected of them by your organization during an investigation, be aware of avoiding sex-based discrimination and how to support employees throughout the process. If managers don’t handle reports appropriately, sexual harassment may continue. They must also be approachable and empathetic, regularly reminding and encouraging employees to speak up to them and importantly lead by example.