Stamping out sexual harassment in the workplace

Benjamin Kluwgant · 05 Aug

Sexual harassment in the workplace is more common that you might think and knowing how to both spot and prevent it needs to be a top priority for HR managers across the board.

Everyone deserves to attend their place of work without being sexually harassed. In fact, according to the Human Rights Commission of Australia, feeling safe at work without being subject to any sort of sexual harassment is a basic human right.

Being aware of and pre-empting sexual harassment in the workplace is the responsibility of the manager or employer of the organisation, making it extremely important for them to be well informed about everything there is to know about such harassment.

Failing to address this awful type of harassment in the workplace can have harsh ramifications for the employer – not to mention the long-lasting impact that it can leave on the victim.

Thankfully, the Australian Human Rights Commission have released plenty of information about what the law considers sexual harassment to be, as well as the ways through which it can (or should) be dealt with – by employers and employees alike.

Three elements of sexual harassment

Within the information that the commission has released, there are some very specific guidelines about what sexual harassment in the workplace actually looks like – essentially, they boil it down to three core components:

  1. Unwelcome conduct
  2. Conduct of a sexual nature
  3. Conduct that a reasonable person would anticipate could possibly make the person subjected to the conduct feel humiliated, offended or intimidated

If the conduct in question meets these three criteria, it is considered sexual harassment and needs to be dealt with accordingly.

From an HR manager’s perspective, picking up on behaviour that shows these three elements is key to dealing with this serious issue effectively.

Sexual harassment against women is also discrimination

Before delving into the problems that sexual harassment cases can cause employers, and some pointers about how to deal with it properly, it’s important to come to terms with numbers surrounding the issue.

Statistically, one in every five people experience sexual harassment in the workplace. When broken down into gender, it works out that one in every four women and one in every six men are victims of such harassment.

As for the stats around perpetrators of this harassment, four out of five harassers (79 per cent) are men, and only one out of those five (21 per cent) are women.

Experiencing sexual harassment is far more prevalent among women than it is among men. Because of this, in the unfortunate event that a man does harasses a woman, not only are they liable for the consequences associated with harassment, they are also up for the penalties surrounding gender discrimination – another unlawful felony. 

Ramifications for employers

The commission expects HR managers and employers to be well informed about their responsibilities regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.

Living up to these responsibilities isn’t just about following the rules though. If this type of misconduct isn’t dealt with properly, the ramifications can be catastrophic on a number of fronts:

1. Legal

From a legal standpoint, if the right effort isn’t put into preventing or dealing with cases of sexual harassment within an organisation, the employer can potentially be looked at as an ‘accessory’ to the harassment.

Just like with most other crimes, any party that is viewed as an accessory to the story is treated like they themselves carried out the offence – definitely not a position that an employer wants to be in.

2. Productivity

Work productivity also suffers tremendously in environments of employers who don’t take dealing with sexual harassment seriously enough.

Such environments cause the people within the organisation to feel unsafe, nervous and generally uncomfortable – all feelings that aren’t conducive to successful work outcomes.

3. Reputation

Solid reputations are extremely difficult to build, but very easy to taint.

The perfect blend of high-quality talent and appropriate culture fit is hard to come by when looking for new employees, but a big draw card for new employees is when the organisation has a good reputation.

Employers who don’t put enough effort into preventing and dealing with sexual harassment properly are basically putting a big black mark over their reputation.

It doesn’t take long for everyone in a particular industry to learn of these bad practices, and once the word spreads – there isn’t much that can be done to change it.

The makings of a harassment-free workplace

Creating a sexual harassment-free working environment is largely up to the leadership team of that particular organisation.

The Australian Human Rights Commission offer company managers all sorts of ideas on how to deal with this epidemic. Ultimately, it boils down to two broad tactics that, if implemented correctly, can significantly reduce this type of behaviour.

  1. Develop and implement policies

Management teams that are looking to take a strong stance against sexual harassment need to develop a set of policies and procedures for dealing with instances of sexual harassment.

These policies need to be written up and printed, because written policy will always be taken more seriously.

After these policies are set up, it doesn’t help for them to be filed away in some binding folder in head office. Managers need to ensure that every staff member receives a copy of the policies and arrange regular meetings to develop them further.

Getting employees to sign the policies after each time they are updated is also an effective way to implement them.

  1. Lead by example

Company managers have the power to make a huge difference to employee behaviour trends in the workplace.

Those managers who show their subordinates exemplary behaviour patterns form an atmosphere that demands respect, inspires conscientiousness and drives productivity – the exact opposite of an environment that houses sexual harassment.

If, on the other hand, an employee sees their manager engage in questionable conduct, it gives them subconscious permission to act in the same way, creating an unwanted cycle of damaging behaviour trends.