Sexual harassment in the workplace has been considered a form of discrimination in the US since the 1970s but in the wake of many high profile scandals and the subsequent #MeToo movement, it's clear that it's still an issue tainting many industries.
It's not just those in the public eye who are falling victim to it either. Research has found that sexual harassment is far more common than many people realize, with over a third of women having experienced it. Studies have also made it clear that it's a global issue, but in the US alone a quarter of all women have reportedly been sexually assaulted, while nearly two-thirds have experienced street harassment.
Experts estimate that these figures are conservative, with a large number of victims choosing not to report the incidents. The prevalence of sexual harassment means it's no wonder that a significant portion of it is occurring in the workplace.
In 2016 alone, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received approximately 27,000 charges of sexual harassment. A poll done in the wake of the #MeToo campaign found that 33 million women in the US have been sexually harassed and 14 million sexually abused in work-related scenarios.
For employers to safeguard all employees against this type of behavior, it's important that HR professionals are equipped with the knowledge and training to understand, prevent and manage instances of sexual harassment.
So what counts as sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is defined as "unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them." - 2010 Equality Act
This doesn't have to be something that is directly aimed at the victim but can be something as inconspicuous as suggestive remarks that are overheard. It can also be undermining of talents, skills, and expertise in favor of physical attributes, such as indicating that someone only got their job because of their big muscles or large chest.
What rights does an employee have?
It's estimated that around 82 million professional women across 24 countries have no legal protection against gender-based discrimination at work, while around 64 countries have no workplace-specific legislation to safeguard employees.
In North America, the European Union and many other countries, this isn't the case and all employees have the right to be protected from sexual harassment or abuse in their job.
For those in the US, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion". However, this only applies to employers with at least 15 employees. Many states have their own individual laws to safeguard against sexual harassment at work.
The European Union has a similar law – quoted from the Equality Act above - that protects all employees from sexual harassment. Despite this, tolerance levels differ enormously across the 28 countries in the EU.
This definition of sexual harassment isn't universal, as demonstrated here, but in countries where there are laws in place, it is similar. In simple terms, any action or words with a sexual connotation that interfere with an employee's ability to work or make them uncomfortable are considered to be sexual harassment.
A few examples of sexual harassment in the workplace are:
- Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos
- Sending suggestive emails
- Displaying inappropriate posters in the workplace
- Telling sexually-oriented jokes or anecdotes
- Making inappropriate sexual gestures
- Staring at someone's body
- Making sexual comments about an employee's appearance
- Inappropriate touching
- Asking personal questions about someone's sex life
What responsibilities does an employer have?
Broadly speaking, employers must put measures in place to ensure employees are able to work in a safe environment free of harassment and discrimination of any form. This usually involves creating an anti-harassment policy of some form that details the procedure for reporting and managing instances of sexual harassment in the workplace.
There's no strict legal requirement for what companies have to actively do to prevent sexual harassment, but if there is an incident and an employer can't show that they have taken all preventative steps possible, they may be liable.
To avoid this, it's best for all employers - regardless of their size - to have a preventative strategy in place for all types of harassment. Most will include a 'statement of intent' about the type of workplace the business intends to create for its employees. It should reflect an actual commitment from the employer to recognize the importance of preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
The US Department of State's statement, for example, reads:
The Department of State is committed to providing a workplace that is free from sexual harassment. Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law and will not be tolerated. When the Department determines that an allegation of sexual harassment is credible, it will take prompt and appropriate corrective action.
It then goes on to explain its anti-harassment policy in more detail and how to report an incident of sexual harassment.
As well as this, companies should look to provide staff - or at least HR and management teams - with training in how to deal with sexual harassment claims and keep clear documentation. It's also in the employer's best interest to act on claims as soon as they become aware of them and be able to prove this, so logbooks can be a good resource to keep.
Businesses should also ensure that the anti-harassment policy is communicated to all employees and that each individual is aware of how to make a complaint. There should be a procedure in place for complaints to be dealt with in a sensitive and confidential manner and attempts to prevent further incidents should be documented.
Calls for more than compliance
Many bodies are calling for employers to do more than just comply with the law by proactively creating a culture where sexual harassment is not accepted. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) says simply complying with federal law and relevant state law means companies are "missing the point".
So what should companies be doing?
Abolish a culture of silence
One of the biggest issues in sexual harassment is that victims are too scared to report the incident or no action is taken after their complaint. It's estimated that around a fifth of women who are sexually harassed at work do report it but around 80% say that nothing changed as a result.
People have cited concerns that "banter" could be misunderstood as sexual harassment but it's always important to understand the context of any allegations. For example, a wink from the postman is in no way comparable to the same gesture from someone who has the power to make you unemployed.
It's crucial that all employees feel comfortable enough to report any sexual harassment they witness or experience. Not doing so could not only jeopardize your company's reputation but may also affect your ability to recruit talent in the first place.
Creating an open, transparent culture
This means your business - no matter how many employees you have - needs to develop an official policy that allows every professional to report any form of harassment they experience or witness. You need to ensure there's a way for potential victims to be treated with respect as they report their complaint, while not encouraging bullying against the alleged perpetrator.
Having a clear and unambiguous policy about what is acceptable behavior - and what isn't - makes it much easier for employees to come forward. You should also state what form sexual harassment can take - texts, emails, notes, jokes and physical - and when disciplinary action will be taken.
If you don't have an HR department, then make sure at least one member of your staff is trained in how to deal with these type of complaints. This will better equip you to deal with both parties and effectively investigate each situation.
An important part of creating an open and transparent culture is ensuring that each and every employee is trained when they start at the company and periodically throughout their employment. This prevents people from claiming 'they didn't know' about the policy in the instance where they are the alleged perpetrators.
For companies that want to attract the right talent and make all their employees feel valued at work, it's essential to tackle sexual harassment claims head on and break the culture of silence.