Sexual harassment at work: how should you respond?

The Weinstein scandal and the hashtag “MeToo”, or the scandal that felled Flemish tv personality Bart De Pauw, have made issues of sexual harassment a hot topic. The business world is no exception and also experiences this problem. But, as an employer, it can often be a difficult subject to tackle. How do you identify such undesirable behaviour and respond to it, as a victim, a witness or an employer?

 In fact, the hierarchical relationships and economic dependence inherent in the business world are important factors in the emergence of a relationship of control. This endangers colleagues’ well-being, mental and physical health, the quality of their work and the efficiency of the organisation. It is therefore necessary to raise awareness among all those involved in the company.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined as any behaviour with sexual connotations aimed at or resulting in harming a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Such behaviour may be verbal, non-verbal or physical.

Sexual harassment can also be environmental. Imagine, for example, a place in which posters of naked women are displayed and crude jokes fly around between colleagues.

Expressions or jokes of a sexual nature, viewing pornography at work or behaviour with sexual connotations also come under the definition of sexual harassment.

Why are people often unaware that they are victims?

People don’t always recognise themselves as victims. A degree of ambiguity in the situation can cause them to doubt it. Sexual harassment doesn’t only involve inappropriate touching, as you might sometimes think. Likewise, a person can be a victim of harassment without being personally targeted, by being faced with an environment with strong sexual connotations.

What’s more, a victim of harassment can appear to participate in this type of atmosphere. Laughing or making comments of a sexual nature can be signs of embarrassment, wanting to fit in with the group or a defence mechanism.

Potentially risky situations

These types of behaviour should be banned in the workplace:

  • presence of posters and computer backgrounds of a sexual nature;
  • repeated comments or compliments about a colleague’s appearance;
  • double entendres or innuendo;
  • frequent jokes of a sexual nature.

How should you respond if you encounter inappropriate behaviour?

Victims are often shocked and don’t want to acknowledge the situation. That’s why preventive information is important so as to be better equipped in case of a problem:

  • consider your unease as a sign to be taken seriously;
  • express clearly that words or behaviour are embarrassing you and ask them to stop;
  • dare to set boundaries – they’re different for everyone and everyone doesn’t have the same sense of humour;
  • talk about it with your friends and family and possibly the occupational physician, the prevention adviser or person of trust in your company;
  • take factual notes and leave a date-stamped trail (email, texts);
  • don’t keep it to yourself.

What if you witness inappropriate behaviour?

Harassment can be hard to witness. Often, a witness feels just as threatened and is afraid of losing their job. If you witness harassment, make sure you:

  • don’t question or minimise the acts of harassment your colleague may confide in you;
  • point out to the harasser when their behaviour is inappropriate;
  • take notes and offer your help to report the situation to the employer;
  • make yourself available to make a statement;
  • don’t try to right the situation yourself. Only the victim can decide to report what’s happened.

For the employer: prevention is better than cure

Did you know that if harassment takes place in the workplace, the employer is responsible, even if the undesirable behaviour is committed by a customer of the company or a third party?

Sexual harassment remains one of the most complicated psychosocial risks to be tackled in the business world. But the numbers don’t lie: preventive regulations are of crucial importance. These action points will put you on the right track:

  • draw up your policy for prevention and tackling of psychosocial risks. This clearly outlines socially acceptable behaviour.
  • Have you carried out an analysis of the psychosocial risks yet? Mensura uses the SONAR method. This method enables you to carry out an integrated, quantitative and qualitative analysis of the psychosocial risks

Need help drawing up your policy for the prevention of psychosocial risks?

Tackling sexual harassment at work is essential to ensure the psychosocial well-being and mental health of all staff. Feel free to contact a Mensura adviser.