A strong reaction to sexual harassment complaints is important, but not enough.
So you’ve read our article on the rise of the “#metoo” movement and the importance of fostering gender equality. While employers should set achievable goals to ensure the promotion of gender equality, it is equally crucial that employers are proactive in addressing the issue of sexual harassment among employees.
New research suggests that sexual harassment has been increasing by an average of 3.42% a year for the past five years. It has never been clearer that reactive approaches to sexual harassment cannot solve the problem. So, how does an employer ensure that they are proactive when it comes to preventing sexual harassment in their workplace?
The handling of complaints
Sexual harassment is an inherently uncomfortable issue. Making matters worse, the increased avenues for employee contact through technology combined with changing perceptions of what constitutes a “workplace”, have given rise to what seems like an endless number of possibilities where inappropriate conduct can occur.
While traditional examples of harassment within a workplace’s four walls (or at a work sponsored party) hold true, employers may not be confident in handling a comment made by one employee on another’s Facebook account for example.
So it’s easy to see why some employers may be intimidated into inactivity until a formal complaint is received. The unpleasant reality however, is that by the time a complaint is made, the damage is often already done.
Instances of sexual harassment rarely occur in a vacuum. A formal complaint can be the “breaking point” for the complainant, precipitated by an extended period of mistreatment which they shouldered in an attempt to get on with their job. By the time you hear about it, the employee may have already suffered through a prolonged period of personal anguish.
A proactive response
There is no magic bullet to addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. A workplace in a traditionally male dominated industry, for example, may require different steps to one in which women make up a sizeable part of the workforce.
That said, there are universal steps every employer can take to ensure it keeps pace with progressive change to the means and scenarios in which sexual harassment may occur, and so that employees know what’s expected of them.
1. Set policy and expectations
Ensure that you have a policy in place which makes clear the organisation’s position on sexual harassment and what is expected of employees. The policy should include:
- a clear explanation of the disciplinary action (including dismissal) which can result from a substantiated complaint of sexual harassment;
- a requirement that each employee sign and return a note confirming that they have read and understood the policy; and
- examples of the kinds of conduct which may constitute sexual harassment. Given the pace of modern technology and changing work practices broadening the ways in which such conduct may occur, any list included in the policy should not purport to be definitive.
Make your expectations “visible” and ever-present in the workplace – post copies of the policy or posters regarding appropriate behaviour around common points of congregation – for example the lunchroom.
2. Education and training
Ongoing education and training of employees is crucial for a number of reasons:
- Consistent education and training plays a key role in fostering a culture in which sexual harassment is not tolerated. A strong anti-harassment culture is a key component in the fight against such conduct.
- Sharing a “rolling update” of new examples of conduct and expectations – taking into account new or developing methods through which sexual harassment may occur (for example, through social media) – allows employers to refresh expectations on an ongoing basis.
- The lines of communication for employees to make a complaint can be made clear — this will mitigate the risk of employees feeling “cut off” or isolated if they are the subject of sexual harassment.
- Training provides a valuable opportunity to remind and encourage bystanders to report any inappropriate behaviour to that they have witnessed — it is important to overcome the mentality that if a matter does not affect you personally then it is not one which you should report.
3. Walking the talk
Practice what you preach. A strong reaction to complaints can be proactive, in the sense that it acts as a deterrent to potential harassers. So where a complaint of sexual harassment is received, take immediate action to address it.
This includes considering whether it is necessary to suspend an employee who is the subject of the complaint and removing them from the workplace while the matter is considered, allowing the complainant the opportunity to further particularise their complaint, and considering whether a formal disciplinary investigation may be required.
Finally, arrange for your workplace leaders to endorse the above mentioned steps, including attending training designed for them, and attending all organised staff information sessions about appropriate workplace behaviour. Workplace leaders need to be seen to practice what an organisation believes in. This step is fundamental.
Aaron Goonrey is a Partner and Adam Battagello is a Lawyer in Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice. Aaron can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org