Sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment is an unfortunate reality for many in offices and workplaces across the country. While the days of overt physical harassment are slowly fading into the past they are not altogether behind us, and more subtle forms of sexual harassment are still far too common. Any type of sexual harassment is not only wholly inappropriate, but it can also contribute to decreased productivity, a hostile work environment, high turnover rates, and countless other impediments to a thriving, comfortable workplace.

As anyone who’s followed the headlines over the past few weeks knows, innumerable women and men from all walks of life have come forward with their stories of sexual harassment. The sheer number of these stories may seem overwhelming; however preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is not an impossible, or even all that difficult of a task. Below we will outline several strategies to promote an open, comfortable workplace free of any form of sexual harassment.

The most effective weapon against sexual harassment is prevention; and the first and most important concept to grasp in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is that any successful anti-harassment policy must come from the top. According to the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Library, “the burden of preventing sexual harassment rests on the employer…The United States in particular has a well-articulated standard of employer liability for sexual harassment…” The most effective way to accomplish this is for the workplace to have a clear statement of intent involving all parties from all levels of the workplace.

This statement should articulate – clearly – what constitutes harassment, that harassment in any form will not be tolerated, how any report of harassment should be handled, and most importantly how such reports will be dealt with, guaranteeing that any and all instances of possible harassment will be taken seriously. This statement should be required reading for all employees, from C-level executives down to interns and janitors, and their input and feedback should be welcomed. This, along with regular training on what constitutes harassment, how to deal with harassment, and a guarantee of support for any employee who feels they may be a victim of harassment constitutes a great first step in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

As mentioned at the opening of this piece, while the more overt forms of sexual harassment (ie. groping, unwanted physical contact, etc.) are thankfully becoming less and less common in the modern workplace, subtler – though no less intimidating – forms of harassment are still far too common. Can a lewd joke, a comment about a coworkers outfit, or an off color innuendo constitute harassment? According to MarketWatch, yes on all of the above. Fran Walfish, a California-based psychotherapist, states that “Sexual harassment is generally not about sex. It’s about control and power…Any act such as this that makes you feel uncomfortable should be documented with the time, date and location.”

This seems to hold especially true in a location – like the workplace – where power dynamics play an outsized role. Even though a joke or comment may seem innocent, and even if no malice was intended, it is still considered harassment if the person on the receiving end was made to feel uncomfortable or at risk. This holds especially true in situations where there is a clear power imbalance between employees. In these scenarios its is vitally important that all employees are aware of, and abide by the workplace’s sexual harassment guidelines.Not all sexual harassment is obvious.

Again, according to the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Library it is important that all employees are cognizant of both verbal and non-verbal behaviors that may cause discomfort; that they remain aware of how their words, actions, or gestures may negatively affect others; and most importantly, do not take any instance of potential sexual harassment lightly. Something as simple as laughing along with a joke of a sexual nature, or even remaining silent, can allow an atmosphere of potential harassment to flourish. There still exists a stigma in reporting harassment, and this is only made worse when even minor infractions like these are tolerated.

As previously stated, the most effective way to end sexual harassment in the workplace is to prevent it before it begins; and this is best accomplished by a well understood top-down policy of zero-tolerance towards sexual harassment in any form. While there is still substantial ground to cover before workplace sexual harassment is eradicated completely, recent events signal a shift in the right direction, and by instituting and adhering to the policies outlined above your workplace can become more comfortable and inclusive for all of your employees.