The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements heralded a new beginning of exposing the magnitude of sexual harassment and abuse prevalent in the society, especially in the workplace. What initially started with women coming forth to expose Harvey Weinstein for the sexual predator that he is, had a ripple effect with women all over the world calling out their harassers. #MeToo started trending as a hashtag on social media with women sharing their experiences and opening up about the trauma they experienced. With many high-profile celebrities backing the cause, more and more instances of sexual harassment and assault came to the fore which was shocking, to say the least. And, it wasn’t restricted to just one profession. It transcended professions and demographics. Time’s Up movement focuses on ensuring a harassment-free and safe workplace. These empowering movements gave voice to the suppressed. With the widespread impact of the movements, it became clear that sexual harassment can no longer be ignored and swept under the rug. It was a wake-up call for everyone, especially organizations and companies to step up their policies if they didn’t want to be embroiled in scandals.
WHAT IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE?
The United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines workplace sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature . . . when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment”.
Every individual deserves to work in a harassment-free workplace and it is the organization’s duty to ensure the same. With so many incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace coming to light, companies are gearing up to tackle the issue head-on, as they should. The Human Resources (HR) personnel who usually deal with this matter are under increasing pressure to handle such incidents efficiently and with sensitivity. Sexual harassment is far more common than we realize. There is no way to gauge the true extent of sexual harassment in the workplace as most of the victims do not come forward. According to the EEOC’s study, between 25 to 85 percent of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. This is no joking matter. Most of the victims are not aware of their rights or are scared of retaliation or simply don’t believe that coming forward will bring about any change in the current situation. It is important to realize that women are not the only victims of sexual harassment; men face sexual harassment too. The harasser can be of the same gender.
It’s imperative that the company keeps reviewing and updating its policy regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. The focus should be on creating a work culture of inclusivity and respect. The employees should be briefed on the company’s policy during the time of joining and they should be made to attend the relevant training periodically. This is to ensure that they are aware of what constitutes sexual harassment and its adverse effects. The organization should follow a zero tolerance policy and the work environment should reflect it.
TIPS TO HANDLE COMPLAINTS
- The complaint procedure should be well-defined and clear. The employees should be familiar with the procedure of lodging a complaint. They should be made aware that there are multiple people to report ( HR, for instance) to in case their supervisor/ manager is involved in the complaint. Having an online portal or a third party system makes the whole process of reporting easier. The company policy should encourage bystander involvement and encourage employees to come forth if they witness sexual harassment at work.
- The investigation should be conducted efficiently and with care. All complaints should be taken seriously, without judging the complainant or the alleged harasser. The investigators should be impartial and should be trained well. It goes beyond just asking questions and noting down the answers. Maintain confidentiality to the extent possible without hindering the investigation.
- Investigations may take time and build tension between the employees involved. You should tread carefully and decide if the continued presence of one of the parties involved is disrupting the investigation. Bear in mind that uncalled for termination will make you liable if the alleged harasser is found to be innocent. The results of the investigation should be carefully considered and communicated clearly to the individuals involved. Healing will take time and the organization should strive to offer support and encouragement every step of the way.
- It is crucial to involve the senior management in the training programs. When the employees see that they are active participants, it will drive the message home. Moreover, the managers and senior management need special training to ensure a harassment-free and inclusive workplace.
A safe, harassment-free workplace reflects the company’s stature and willingness to stay compliant. It builds its brand as a company that respects its employees and their right to a safe work environment. The benefits include improved employee morale and productivity, fostering an environment of mutual respect and inclusivity, retention and acquisition of talent. When employees feel safe at the workplace, it does wonders to their performance and bolsters confidence. Organizations have a duty to protect their employees. Sexual harassment should be tackled head-on with the intention of eliminating it. The days of staying silent are long gone!