Placing the Spotlight on Sexual Harassment

Many people are shocked and appalled with what seems to be almost daily allegations of sexual harassment involving high profile individuals and industries. Sexual harassment does not discriminate against age, beauty, gender, ethnicity, job title, industry or socio economic factors, it festers where there is a lack of basic respect, a lack of belief in equality between people and where there is an imbalance of power (real or perceived).

Read behind recent headlines and sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon, in many cases  allegations date back many years, it’s just a light has been shone on behaviour that has long existed that has commonly been executed in private involving the abuse of power or ‘perceived power’.

So why haven’t people spoken up or out about their experience until now? Unfortunately statistics show that only * one in five people who are sexually harassed will make a formal report or complaint.

There are many and varied reasons behind the low rate of reporting including not recognising the subtle behaviour, social pressure, fear of reprisal,  the ‘perceived power’ of the perpetrator,  industry culture, the sensitive nature of the alleged behaviour and the reality it frequently happens one on one so there are no witnesses and there may be no ‘evidence’.

The majority of sexual harassment cases involve non-physical behaviour such as sexually suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about someone’s private life or physical appearance and inappropriate staring or leering. People mistakenly believe that for sexual harassment to have taken place it needs to involve physical contact which most definitely is not the case.

The definition of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is- Sexual Harassment occurs when a person makes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated and/or intimidated.    

It’s true in diverse workplaces that harassment may involve comments, gestures, behaviours or jokes that offend some people and not others along with the reality that individuals may react differently to comments and behaviour.  This is why a minimum standard of behaviour should be required of all workplace participants, which simply stated is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Whilst this is a complex issue there are several relatively simple activities we as leaders can regularly undertake to mitigate the risk of sexual harassment happening within our workplaces for example- provide frameworks and guidance via policy or code as to what is ‘ok and what is not ok’ workplace behaviour, role model behaviours on the ‘right side of the line’, create and reinforce a safe, healthy workplace culture and have mechanisms in place for people to confidently report allegations of behaviour that they find offensive, humiliating or intimidating.

Early interventions provide good outcomes when it comes to inappropriate workplace behaviour – address jokes, comments and gestures that ‘cross the line’ way before it becomes a sexual harassment claim. It is important to identify and remove casual or blatant attitudes that someone is lesser than the next person (for whatever reason), reinforce a culture of mutual respect which will naturally deal with many of the underlying factors allowing inappropriate or harassing behaviour to manifest itself.

Here at EastCoast Human Resource Group we can provide training and policy frameworks to ensure your workplace is safe, healthy and legislatively compliant.

* Source: Australian Human Rights Commission

By Heidi Bishop Senior Consultant