#TimesUp for employers that aren’t addressing sexual harassment

The perfect storm was brewing for HR over the holidays. With the #metoo and #timesup movement taking over social media late last year, many returned from the break with a new understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace. The storm is now a tsunami as we move into Q4 and you’re probably seeing the effects it’s having on the day to day activities in your workplace. We are fixated romance, socializing and sex and sexual harassment at work, so much so our Prime Minster has banned it among colleagues. Can your business do that? Should you? And the last 24 hours have now revealed that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce Australia has a sexual harassment allegation that is being investigated on the back of a workplace relationship. So let’s breathe and break it down.

What is sexual harassment 

You might have heard that Fred is worried about getting in trouble for leaving those Christmas chocolates on Fatima’s desk, and wondering how that budding romance you witnessed at the end of year party is panning out, and all the while questioning exactly what behaviours you need to be protecting your employees from.

The Victorian Human Rights Commission defines Sexual harassment in the workplace as:

“Unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written. Sexual harassment said to occur in the workplace when it happens: 

  • at work
  • at work-related events
  • between people sharing the same workplace 
  • between colleagues outside of work.” 

This means that there are a huge variety of ‘romantic’ and ‘social’  behaviours that this does not cover, including: 

  • Asking a colleague out  
  • Leaving them a gift, token or kind note  
  • Hanging out at their desk 
  • Talking to them about your life  
  • Asking them if they want a coffee if you are going to get one
  • Telling them they look nice today  
  • Holding the door open for them  

However, if any of the above behaviours happen persistently and/or make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, they can absolutely be counted as sexual harassment and you are absolutely obligated to intervene.

Your obligations as a business 

It can be difficult to know whether you should ‘stick your nose in it’. As a business, you’re required to provide a workplace that is mentally and physically safe for your employees, but many of your employees don’t want you knowing their personal business. While having June admit that she’s actually dating David and that’s the real reason she asked to transfer teams a few months ago can be awkward, the stigma and taboo nature surrounding sexual behaviour in the workplace is one of the reasons why up to 4 out of 5 cases of workplace sexual harassment go unreported.

But more on that in a minute. A business’ first and foremost obligation in terms of providing a safe workplace is applying and implementing the relevant legislations. In order to do this, you must do three things 

  1. Understand the legislation and how it is interpreted in your country and state 
  2. Write down policies and procedures that include all aspects of the legislation 
  3. Ensure that your employees understand the policies and procedures
  4. Describe what will occur if they don’t adhere to them

In my experience, employers most often fail at number 3. Here is my step-by-step guide to making sure that your employees get your policies and procedures.  


Back to this stigma 

So now you can prove that your employees know and understand all of the policies and procedures I hear you asking what happens now? We know that lack of communications is a huge contributing factor to unreported or mishandled sexual assault cases, so what are your next steps?  

Many business owners will revert to ‘training’, and in many cases they would be right. But in the instance of sexual harassment, training rarely works. Recent research by Justine Tinkler, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Georgia says it doesn’t work can make matters worse because traditional sexual harassment training tends to portray men as powerful and sexually insatiable and women as vulnerable. “It puts women in a difficult position in terms of feeling confident and empowered in the workplace,” she said.

The other reason the training doesn’t work is because its designed to protect the company, not the employees. We can be sure that Miramax and the Weinstein Company have well written and watertight policies and procedures when it comes to sexual harassment, but that still didn’t protect the hundreds of people that have come forward. Simply, when we reduce human relationships and behaviours to a tick box that reduces a business’s liability it might make the business FEEL safer but that doesn’t mean it is.

If you decide training is for you, I’m imploring you to do it right. Have a professional speak to the ENTIRE company and ensure that the leaders are contributing to the conversation. It’s not about reading policies and procedures – have trainers arm your employees with the knowledge of what they can expect, and what they can do if they feel it isn’t being handled correctly. This training must be to the benefit of the individual, NOT to the business.

The takeaway

And if you only want two take home points from this article, let it be these.

Firstly, speak up. Lead by example and create a workplace culture that stands against disrespectful behaviour. This should be an initiative led from your management teams both in the behaviour they display, and the behaviour they expect from their teams. Hear someone say something rude or inappropriate? Call them out. And if you suspect something worse is going on – ask. It’s an awkward conversation – but so is talking about salary or behavioural expectations. That is a part of your job, and so is this.  

The second take home point? If we look at the statistics, we see that sexual harassment thrives in workplaces where women and under-represented or have little power. So empower your female employees, and treat them equally. Ensure there is an equal balance of men and women in leadership roles, so that ALL of your employees feel represented, understood and above all, heard.   

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