What is sexual harassment in the workplace?

Recently, we’ve seen a number of high-profile stories of pervasive sexual harassment at leading companies surface and gain media attention. These stories might only dominate the headlines for a little while, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The UN reports that 40-50% of women in EU countries and 30-40% of women in Asia-Pacific countries experience some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. In the US, a YouGov survey found 30% of women have been sexually harassed.

Women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual harassment and so most of the stats we see relate to their experience. However, the limited data that’s available suggests LGBTQ people and people of color are also disproportionately affected. A smaller percentage of men are also harassed by women or other men.

While the victim’s experience of sexual harassment can range from uncomfortable to devastating, in the workplace there are also ramifications for the wider organization. The relationship between culture and sexual harassment is complicated, but with 98% of US organizations reportedly having sexual harassment policies in place, something is clearly awry in how culture is espoused versus how it’s experienced.

We need to talk about why this is the case.

Because sexual harassment claims are often settled behind closed doors, there’s little opportunity to understand and learn from what’s happened. Even if details are shared, people tend to focus more on the salacious detail than any lessons that can be learnt.

Privacy is essential, but organizations need to start having the tough conversations that can make change happen. We want to help start these conversations, so we’ve partnered with Nathan Luker from Your Call, a whistleblowing service provider, to deliver a series of articles on sexual harassment in the workplace.

We’ll cover the following questions:

  • What is sexual harassment in the workplace?
  • Why don’t people report sexual harassment?
  • How can you create a reporting culture?
  • How can you plan to respond to sexual harassment at your workplace?
  • What are the red flags to look for?
  • How can a new CEO address a rancid culture?

The importance of defining sexual harassment

Before we even get to the definition itself, we wanted to start with why it’s important to have a shared understanding of what sexual harassment is.

Even when a definition is set out in black and white, cultural biases - particularly those stemming from a traditional view of the workplace as male-centric - can still impact how people interpret its meaning.

The Harvard Business Review tested this idea by asking a small group of individuals to read and then discuss a sexual harassment policy. They found that even though the policy clearly focused on specific behaviors of sexual harassment, the participants overwhelmingly felt that the policy focused on perceptions of those behaviors and therefore found it threatening. The participants believed it could cover any ‘innocent’ behavior by one employee (typically a heterosexual male) if an irrational person (typically a heterosexual female) perceived it to be harassment.

From a reporting perspective, being clear on the content of ‘sexual harassment’ can actually change how women self-report their experiences. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission examined the findings of a range of surveys and found that when a survey specifically asked respondents whether they had experienced particular behaviors, like unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, rather than simply asking about ‘sexual harassment’, the level of reported harassment increased. In short, even women experiencing these behaviors as uncomfortable or offensive don’t necessarily label them as sexual harassment.

The point of these examples is that even when we think we’re on the same page, we’re often not. And this divergence can have major consequences culturally and individually.

Defining sexual harassment

The definition of sexual harassment in the workplace is the same as the definition for sexual harassment anywhere. The following definition is from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), but very similar wording is found in the US, UK and EU:

An unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which a reasonable person would anticipate would cause a person to feel offended, humiliated or intimidated constitutes sexual harassment.

It’s about behaviors

To really understand what the definition covers, we need to look more specifically at the types of behaviors covered. The AHRC gives these examples:

  • unwelcome touching;
  • staring or leering;
  • sexually explicit pictures or posters;
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates;
  • requests for sex;
  • intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body;
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person;
  • insults or taunts based on sex;
  • sexually explicit physical contact; and
  • sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages.

These are just examples and they all look incontrovertible on the page. Other behaviors that still amount to sexual harassment can be less obvious, perhaps delivered in a more subtle way. In these situations, perpetrators may excuse their behavior as flattering or flirtatious, while victims worry they’re rocking the boat unnecessarily. The fact is, if behavior of a sexual nature reasonably makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, then it’s sexual harassment.

Connected to the workplace

Workplace sexual harassment laws tie these behaviors to the employment context - which generally means every employment situation and relationship. The prohibition covers not only behavior in the workplace itself, but also work-related activities (e.g. conferences and parties) and basically all the interactions between people who work together.

The environment itself can also amount to unlawful sexual harassment where it’s sexually permeated or hostile. This could include a workplace where pornographic materials are displayed, or a culture where offensive jokes, sexual banter and crude conversations are the norm.

Who’s responsible?

The person who sexually harasses someone is responsible for the harassment, but employers can also be held responsible for the actions of employees. Having policies and procedures to create a harassment-free environment, and make reporting effective will help limit an employer’s liability, and can help reduce incidents.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at why many (up to 80%) of sexual harassment incidents go unreported and some of the cultural and contextual factors that might be to blame.

About Culture Amp

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