November 20, 2017

Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in Light of #MeToo


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re well aware of the #MeToo campaign that recently took the world by storm. The hashtag’s explosion on Twitter and Facebook highlights the fact that we still have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are still pervasive issues we need to address both in our lives in general and in the workplace in particular. Below, we’ll cover what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, the severity of the problem, and how performance management systems can be adapted to better support employees facing these problems.

What Exactly Is ‘Sexual Harassment’?

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” that makes an individual feel humiliated, intimidated, or offended. It can come in many forms, including:

– Staring or leering
– Touching
– Kissing
– Hugging
– Suggestive comments
– Inappropriate jokes
– Sexually explicit images
– Unnecessary familiarity
– Insults, threats, or taunts
– Criminal offenses such as stalking, physical assault, and sexual assault

How Big of a Problem Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Don’t let the lack of discussion lead you to believe sexual harassment is not prevalent. Many factors keep people from speaking up, and accusations are often swept under the rug. Somebody dealing with sexual harassment may be too humiliated to speak out, or the person sexually harassing them may be in a position of authority.

According to an ABC News-Washington Post poll on sexual harassment, 54 percent of American women have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” during their lives. Thirty percent of women stated they have dealt with unwanted advances from male colleagues, while 25 percent have faced advances from men who had sway over their careers. The poll also found that nearly all women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace believe the perpetrators go unpunished.

Another poll found that 58 percent of the women who have experienced sexual harassment did not report the harassment. Those who did report the harassment said that the incidents were either unacknowledged or little to no action was taken. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 75 percent of employees who speak out against sexual harassment face some sort of retaliation. Globally, more than a third of countries lack laws prohibiting sexual misconduct at work, leaving millions of women without any form of official protection.

reflectThis reality leads many women to believe that even if they were to speak up, their concerns would be dismissed – or, worse, they would face additional harassment, abuse, or mistreatment.

What Organizations Can Do About Sexual Harassment

The Role of the Manager Is Critical

We all know that managers have a lot of sway over team cultures. To ensure everyone feels safe and secure at work, managers need to help cultivate workplaces that don’t tolerate any form of sexual harassment. Managers need to encourage employees to speak up, and they need to support and listen to workers who do come forward.

Adopt a Clear Policy

Every business should have an employee handbook, and this handbook should clearly outline your company’s attitude and policy toward sexual harassment. This is the first step in making it clear that your organization won’t shy away from such matters, which will go a long way toward making employees feel safer.

Your sexual harassment policy should:

  1. Clearly define sexual harassment
  2. State that your business will not tolerate this behavior
  3. Stipulate that sexual harassment will be met with discipline or termination
  4. Outline a procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints
  5. Explain that HR and management will investigate fully any complaint received
  6. Make it clear that retaliation against sexual harassment complaints will not be tolerated

Train Employees 

Another way to take steps toward preventing sexual harassment is to conduct training sessions for employees. During these sessions, employees should be told exactly what sexual harassment is, what it entails, how it is treated by your company, and whom survivors can approach to discuss sexual harassment incidents. Employees should also be given context and statistics so they can truly understand the severity of the problem.

HR Must Train Managers and Supervisors

Managers and supervisors also need to be trained on how to handle sexual harassment incidents. Managers need to be clear on what the processes are, as well as what to say and what not to say to an employee who comes forward. It shouldn’t be assumed that managers will instinctively do and say the right things. Like anyone else, they need to be provided the right tools and training to perform well and support your workforce.

Hold Regular One-to-One Meetings

More and more companies are holding regular one-to-one performance discussions instead of annual performance reviews. These meetings can do more than just moderate performance and track goal progression: They can also foster trust between managers and employees. This trust breeds honest communication, making it more likely that employees who face sexual harassment will feel comfortable alerting their managers to the situation.

As with anything, acknowledging the problem is the first step to resolving it. The above steps can help you combat sexual harassment at your workplace by encouraging a more transparent company culture that does not tolerate oppressive conduct.

Stuart Hearn is CEO of Clear Review.

Read more in Harassment

Stuart Hearn has 20 years of experience in the HR sector. He cofounded plusHR, a leading UK HR consultancy, and previously worked as international HR director for Sony Music Publishing. Stuart is currently CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software system.