Sexual harassment? What is our role?

How can employers take precautions against sexual harassment occurring at the workplace?

Every employer (regardless of size) should maintain a workplace that is free of sexual harassment. In some countries it is a legal obligation, but in all cases it makes good business sense. If sexual harassment is allowed to flourish in a workplace, there will be a high price to pay in poor employee morale, low productivity, and lawsuits. Additionally, in some countries an employer can be held liable if sexual harassment occurs and it is found that the employer did not take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace. These are some of the recommended steps:

A. Adopt a clear sexual harassment policy:

An employee handbook should have a policy devoted to sexual harassment. The policy can be based on the laws of the country, or along global guidelines. That policy should:

  • Define sexual harassment
  • State in no uncertain terms that sexual harassment will not be tolerated
  • State that wrongdoers will be disciplined or fired
  • Set out a clear procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints
  • State that any complaint will be fully investigated
  • State that there will be no tolerance for retaliation against anyone who complains about sexual harassment.
  • Keep in mind that just having a sexual harassment policy is not enough – it needs to be implemented through communication, education and enforcement. For an example of a sexual harassment policy, see below in this section.

B. Practical steps in the workplace:

  • Train employees: Conduct regular training sessions for employees. These sessions should teach employees what sexual harassment is, explain that employees have a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment, review your complaint procedure, and encourage employees to use it.
  • Train supervisors and managers: Conduct regular training sessions for supervisors and managers that are separate from the employee sessions. The sessions should educate the managers and supervisors about sexual harassment and explain how to deal with complaints.
  • Monitor the workplace: Employers (and supervisors and managers) should get out among employees periodically. They should talk to them about the work environment. They should keep an eye out for offensive posters or other material. The lines of communication should be kept open.
  • Take all complaints seriously: If someone complains about sexual harassment, there should be immediate action to investigate the complaint. If the complaint turns out to be valid, response should be swift and effective.

What can employees/workers do to prevent sexual harassment?

Employees/workers can:

  • Insist that their place of work has a sexual harassment policy
  • Make sure that they know what their company policy on sexual harassment is
  • Make sure that the policy is known and understood by their co-workers, managers and supervisors
  • If necessary, organise sessions where the policy is explained and discussed amongst co-workers
  • Make sure that the reporting procedures for sexual harassment are properly in place
  • Report incidences of sexual harassment.

If I am sexually harassed, what can I do?

Sometimes sexual harassment can be confusing, or scary. You may not know what steps you can take to stop it, or report it. You may worry about your job security, or about what your colleagues might say. These are common reactions. Whether you have been harassed continuously over a period of time, or have experienced one short and shocking form of sexual harassment, the result is equally unpleasant. Importantly – you have the right to work in an environment where this does NOT happen.

Some guidelines:

If the perpetrator seems to have no idea that what he/she has done is inappropriate or unwelcome, you can speak up and let them know what you do not like about their behaviour. You can do this as a form of a warning, before taking other steps. You can also ask a colleague or supervisor to sit with you while you talk to the perpetrator, or even ask them to talk on your behalf. This is your choice. The perpetrator then has no excuse if they continue with the offensive behaviour.

If sexual harassment has taken place and your workplace has a sexual harassment policy, then make sure you follow the guidelines for reporting and/or dealing with the event. Make sure you enlist the correct people to support you through this process.

Make sure you collect as many details as you can (time, place, etc) and if necessary witnesses or evidence (inappropriate pictures etc).

If your company has no set procedure in place for reporting sexual harassment, you should bring your complaint to your immediate supervisor. If your supervisor is the individual committing the harassment, make your complaint to your supervisor's immediate superior. It is important to make sure that your company's management is aware of the harassment.

It is the employer's duty to create a safe workplace. If you are retaliated against or continue to be harassed, report it again.

If your workplace does not deal satisfactorily with the case, you may wish to pursue the matter outside the workplace, by laying a formal criminal or civil charge against the perpetrator.

The same applies if you are self-employed and have been sexually harassed by a client or customer, for example. You can lodge a formal criminal or civil charge against the perpetrator.

You can also seek union assistance if you are a member of a trade union.

If you are in a country where the laws allow, you may bring a civil lawsuit for any injuries you suffered due to the sexual harassment. You do not need to show physical injuries. The most common injuries in a sexual harassment case are the emotional injuries suffered by the victim.

If your sexual harassment suit is successful, your remedies may include:

  • Reinstatement, if you lost your job
  • Back pay if you lost money or missed out on a raise
  • Fringe benefits lost
  • Damages for emotional distress
  • A requirement that your employer initiate policies or training to stop harassment
  • Your attorney's fees and court costs.

What can friends, family and others do to help the situation?

It is sometimes difficult to tell friends, and even family and loved ones, about sexual harassment in the workplace. In some cases there is a strong stigma attached (“she was asking for it”) while in other cases victims may feel emotionally and physically destroyed (many rape cases have been reported as part of sexual harassment in the workplace).

However, it is important to be able to feel there is space one can talk about one’s experience, get more information if necessary, and get much needed emotional and practical support.

Some women’s centres and rape crisis organisations will provide this service. Counselling and therapy sessions are also extremely helpful.

If it is possible to share with family or friends, let them know how you are feeling, and what you are doing. Don’t keep it all bottled up.

It may take a long period of time to recover from sexual harassment. Be patient with yourself, and seek guidance and help if you need it.

If someone you know has been a victim of sexual harassment, try to be as supportive as possible. Listen to them. Find out what options are available to them. Realise that they have had an entirely unwelcome, offensive and potentially dangerous experience in a space where they have the right to be protected. Let them know they have your support.

Be prepared

It is obviously not possible for a person to know when or where sexual harassment may take place at work – all situations are different. One can try and be alert and take precautions. However, there is no foolproof way to prevent sexual harassment – one can only try and be careful. If you find yourself in a situation where someone is pressuring you, remember that it’s not your fault. These tips may help you exit the situation safely.

Tips : At work

From the first hint of harassment be firm but confront the harasser.

"It makes me uncomfortable when you _____. " Short direct sentences and practical examples work best.

If you are suspicious of someone’s behaviour, keep a very detailed diary of the incidents. If you are at all uncomfortable, then something is wrong. If the behaviour persists then report it.

If you are unhappy with or suspect inappropriate behaviour from a work colleague/employer/client/etc, try not to be alone in the same room with that person. If necessary, bring along a colleague or two.

If you do not feel comfortable with a certain situation, make your excuses and leave. Alternatively, get a supportive colleague to join the situation.

If you feel threatened by a potentially dangerous situation, do not hesitate to call or shout for help – it could change things drastically.

Tips : Travel

If you have to see a client or travel for work purposes, make sure that friends or family know where you are going, how you are going, and where you will be staying. Share your travel information with them.

Make sure your family have your contact details, and make sure that your cellphone or other form of communication is accessible and fully charged.

Make sure you can send messages reliably and fast.

Make yourself familiar with the place you are going (do online research before, etc).

Make sure you can leave the place easily, and that transport is readily available.

If you are away from your home town or home country, find out about the emergency numbers you may need in the place you are staying (eg local police).

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