So you think you have heard everything there is to know about sexual harassment; that it’s 2009 and yesterday’s news; that it might possibly happen in other workplaces, where people are less enlightened or aware perhaps, but hardly true among you and your staff?
According to a recent American study, the simple facts ,though, are that 30-50% of female employees have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their work life, and, according to the same study, about 10% of male employees have been in the same position. Furthermore, in a Japanese study from 2007, as many as 59% of the women had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is a violation of the individual’s rights, personal integrity and autonomy. It affects not only the individual concerned, but also the entire organization. Working in an environment that allows this offensive behavior is not doing any good for the staff or the company itself.
The anxiety and stress produced by sexual harassment may often lead to employees taking time off work due to sickness. It reduces morale and makes people less efficient at work. Many employees, especially women, see no other alternative than to leave their job to seek work elsewhere. So there are real financial consequences to this even if you are not convinced by the moral arguments.
A wise manager knows the importance of creating an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect. He or she knows that it can provide tremendous benefits of improved creativity, morale and teamwork, and that employees that are happy and content work better, and harder. Allowing sexual harassment to take place at your workplace will eventually have a negative effect on the productivity.
What is sexual harassment then, and how can you identify it? Harassment is unwelcome behavior that makes the other person (or people) feel uncomfortable. It makes no difference whether it’s intentional or not, since it is the victim or subject of these unwanted attentions, that judges if the conduct is offensive and unwelcome or not. The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct (i.e. direct and indirect harassment). Furthermore, the victim, as well as the harasser may be male or female and the victim does not have to be of the “opposite” sex.
What often springs to mind when talking about sexual harassment is the verbal or physical conduct of a “sexual nature” such as comments on someone’s looks, touching and groping, requests for sexual favors in exchange for rewards or threats of firing and so on. What people tend to miss, however, is that the definition of “sexual” in “sexual harassment” means both “sexual” and “sex” as in “gender.”
Gender-related sexual harassment occurs much more often and is more difficult to detect. Simply put, it is when you are being persistently treated differently based solely on whether you are a man or a woman. It may involve more subtle actions such as insinuations, stereotypical comments about women and men, failure to share information, excluding people from meetings, interrupting people when they speak, to mention but a few examples.
Here is an example one of my acquaintances told me about: Claire was the only woman at a managerial position at a large international corporation in Tokyo. She told me how her male boss refused to acknowledge her presence. For instance, he never looked directly at her, or greeted her in the corridor. In fact, he hardly ever spoke to her. On rare occasions, when he needed to communicate with her, he sent his assistant to convey information or collect something from her. To top it off, meetings about tasks she was in charge of were held without her knowledge and presence, making it almost impossible for her to do her job! Eventually, when she could not change the situation (despite several attempts) she left and found a job with the key competitor! – Talk about a complete waste of human capital.
The only way to truly deal with sexual harassment is by prevention. Here are a few basic recommendations for managers and HR professionals:
Management sets the “tone” for the whole organization. Be very clear in stating that no kind of discriminatory behavior will be tolerated in your organization; you set the standard: you need to be a role model. Inform others about the consequences. Follow through on any policy taken. It is your responsibility to ensure the well being of your employees.
Address the problem when it happens. It will not blow over by itself but most likely get worse if you ignore it.
Spend time talking to your employees. Get a sense of what is going on in the office, get to know your people, listen to them. Communication is key.
It is absolutely essential to have a clear and well thought out policy for gender equality and how to deal with sexual harassment. Be sure that it contains concrete measures and goals that you can evaluate, that you can measure. Also, make sure that it’s created by someone who actually knows the topic well (bring in a sexual harassment expert if you need to). Don’t forget to implement the policy, or to follow up during the year, otherwise it’s of no use.
Ensure individuals know whom to turn to if something occurs. Be clear about who the responsible person for dealing with complaints is. Also, have several contact persons: the boss, of course, but also members of staff who are trusted by others at the office (preferably both a man and a woman). HR can play a really important role in supporting this.
Establish what will happen if someone makes a complaint. What measures will be taken? It is important to have a strategy for how to handle complaints, that this well known among the employees. Be sure to act fast and follow through on your policy. Don’t be afraid to talk to the people involved. Get outside help if you are inexperienced in dealing with sexual harassment. Your HR department may be able to help with this.
- Invest time and expense in diversity training and awareness about sexual harassment. Many types of harassment and discrimination spring from ignorance and can be easily resolved.
Sexual harassment is an organizational and structural problem, not simply an individual problem. It is generally believed that removing the offender from his or her position will resolve the situation, when the problem usually lies within the organization itself. To avoid sexual harassment you must create an organization that ensures that the working conditions are suitable for both women and men. By doing this, the whole organization will benefit from more creative and productive co-workers and employees.
My Persson is a gender equality consultant specializing in sexual harassment and gender equality at the workplace. She has a degree in gender studies from Uppsala University, Sweden. She is also an associate speaker at TELL (Tokyo English Life Line) and runs programs within the business community of Tokyo on sexual harassment.© Japan Today