There are phrases or sayings that should have disappeared out of common circulation in recent years, but instead they are surprisingly resilient in a post #MeToo world. Phrases like ‘Didn’t mean anything by it, just having a laugh, it’s political correctness gone mad’ should come with a warning as they often excuse or dismiss inappropriate or harmful behaviour. Writing this, I suddenly feel self-conscious that I’m coming across as if I’ve no sense of humour – one of the most damning things to say to a British person – but then sexual harassment isn’t funny at all.
A recent report on Gender Equality in the Workplace by Ranstad found that 72% of women had either encountered or witnessed inappropriate behaviour from workplace colleagues, with 32% of women, and similarly a third of non-binary people, saying their careers have been affected by sexual harassment. It can and does happen to men too, although it follows the fault-lines of discrimination and oppression meaning those less equal are likely to experience it more. It certainly can happen to anyone regardless of their sexual orientation, in fact the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 68% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people reporting being sexually harassed at work.
Like any type of harassment, it’s impact can be profound on the wellbeing of the person experiencing it. They may have strong physical, emotional and psychological reactions to the harassment, including heightened feelings of stress, anxiety, frustration and anger. Shame and humiliation may also feature because of the sexual content of the harassment, making it more difficult to speak out. The impact is serious and can be long-lasting. So why could it be seen as a ‘bit of fun’ or brushed off as “high jinks” as Lucy Siegle described it recently in The New European? I believe that it’s a way of normalising or minimising harmful behaviours that people in positions of power want to continue with impunity.
Sexual harassment is defined as engaging in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of either violating the other person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. It might be verbal or physical, it can happen online and in person. It is unlawful under the Equality Act of 2010 and all employers have a duty of care to protect their workers and will be legally liable for sexual harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it.
It’s well-known that productivity in the workplace is boosted by employees feeling positive and often that is seen as having fun at work. The need for banter – light-hearted joking amongst colleagues – can be highlighted as a necessary part of this, perhaps to the detriment of everyone feeling safe and included. So the line between banter and sexual harassment will be clear if workers and leaders are sensitive and apply the litmus test of consent by reading the room:
Is this behaviour welcomed by my
colleagues? And if the banter involves
any of the nine protected characteristics
then it should be stopped immediately,
even at the risk of being a ‘kill-joy’!
So practically what can employers do to make their workplaces happy, productive and ensure that they are protecting their employees from sexual harassment? The following points are not comprehensive but they are a start:
Know the law - Make sure you’re clear about what sexual harassment can be. Understand that it’s as much about how actions or words are perceived, as what someone may have intended. Think about how your employees can embrace the idea of being responsible for how something lands with another person.
Training - Keep relevant staff members up to date with training on sexual harassment. Work with those responsible for training in your organisation to find ways of training all workers on understanding and preventing sexual harassment.
Culture - Create a work culture that doesn’t tolerate bullying, harassment or discrimination of any sort. Low-level sexist or misogynist comments are known to create an atmosphere in which more serious actions can take place.
Don’t let it be a taboo - Put posters up. Have conversations. Make it clear that your workplace is somewhere that sexual harassment is recognised and spoken about.
If it happens take it seriously - This might seems so obvious. If you want to know what NOT to do – read the article by Lucy Seigle. There are many barriers to reporting sexual harassment, including the shame and humiliation it can cause. If someone comes to you they’ve already overcome these barriers, taking their disclosure seriously and handling with fairness and sensitivity is the least you can do.
Take a look and get in touch about the drama based training The Garnett Foundation has available to educate and empower staff in the workplace to support and raise awareness of all aspects surrounding harassment, bullying and sexual abuse at work.