Work is an important social outlet for many of us. We make friends and many of us even meet partners there. But sometimes behaviour crosses into intimidating territory and this can have major implications for the individuals involved and the companies that employ them.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome attention of a sexual nature” that a reasonable person could anticipate might cause someone to feel humiliated, offended or intimidated or – in the context of work – make the workplace unpleasant.
The fundamental difference between sexual harassment and workplace flirting, dating or even office affairs is that the behaviour is unwelcome. This is particularly damaging if the target fears for their job, career or reputation in rejecting the unwelcome attention or speaking out.
What behaviour is sexual harassment?
Actions can be subtle or overt and might include unwelcome sexual comments, advances or actions.
Sexual harassment may range from sexist or suggestive remarks, wolf whistling, persistent invitations for drinks, dinner or sex, to implied threats or promises relating to sexual favours or advances. It may entail unwelcome physical attention like brushing against, pinching, hugging or grabbing intimate parts of the body. It could be questions or rumours about a person’s private life or sexuality or the relationship between colleagues.
The most serious cases may include stalking or sexual assault, which are also separate criminal offences.
Where does sexual harassment happen?
Sexual harassment can occur anywhere, but many complaints emanate from the workplace. It can happen anywhere from the boardroom to the boiler room but is particularly rife in some industries, such as hospitality.
Sexual harassment often involves a perpetrator exploiting a power imbalance. This might be formal or informal power. It could be a boss making unwelcome overtures towards a subordinate accompanied by threat or promise (using the power of seniority) or a case of a group “ganging up” on a person of minority status (the power of safety in numbers).
The first person of a minority gender to work in a workplace may be particularly vulnerable to being singled out for unwelcome attention, such as a woman working on an engineering project, a male nurse working on a previously female-only ward or someone who is gender fluid or transgender.
Increasingly it is understood that anyone can be a perpetrator and anyone a target or victim. We know that men sexually harass women or men, but women may also sexually harass men and women.
Who perpetuates sexual harassment?
Those who sexually harass can range from those individuals who are “out of touch” with contemporary workplaces ideas about what is unprofessional, disrespectful or potentially offensive to those who know their behaviour is unwelcome and offensive, even intimidating and predatory, but do not care about the impact they’re having. Many believe they will not suffer any negative consequences, and some blame the victims for being too sensitive or misunderstanding their intention.
Sexual harassers, particularly those that are repeat offenders, are often characterised by a lack of empathy, narcissistic tendencies and even unhealthy ideas about gender and respect for difference.
Sometimes sexual harassment builds over time. Other times perpetrators spontaneously “ramp up” their behaviour. This may happen in a social atmosphere after work or where alcohol is consumed.
How do companies contribute to sexual harassment?
Workplace dynamics can contribute to sexual harassment, which is why organisations must be mindful of their culture, as well as individual behaviour and experiences. Workplace factors that may increase the likelihood of sexual harassment include:
- A “permissive” culture (workplace behaviours) or climate (workplace atmosphere), in which bad behaviour is overlooked
- An environment that is “hostile” or intolerant of difference
- Staff that are dealing with lots of change, or are otherwise under stress
- Leaders or influential staff that set examples of bad behaviour
- Instances of sexual harassment or other misbehaviour that are left unaddressed by the organisation. This may also include victimisation of the complainant.
Why does sexual harassment matter?
Sexual harassment not only creates a legal and reputational risk for organisations: it also has significant psychological impact on the workforce.
Everyone is entitled to work in an environment in which they feel physically and psychologically safe. All are entitled to what one anti-discrimination commissioner called “quiet enjoyment” of their workplace, to be treated with respect and to be given opportunities based on merit.
For those who are sexually harassed, reactions may range from mild annoyance to significant trauma. The loss of pay, opportunities or a valued job may have significant personal consequences. The harassment and their reaction to it may threaten a victim’s view of themselves as capable and confident. Not wanting to speak out of fear of victimisation can undermine self-identity and self-esteem.
People who have experienced adverse events such as sexual abuse or experiences of powerlessness or intense fear might find the experience triggers powerful, painful reactions.
Those affected may be not just the target of sexual harassment but also those who witness it. Highly sexualised, sexist behaviour or black humour with no consequences can set an unhealthy tone in a workplace and damage the reputation of teams or the whole organisation. Sexual harassment itself can be distracting, divisive and, like any business stressor, potentially debilitating. Some staff may even become jealous of the focus on others even though that attention may be unwelcome or offensive.
These dynamics can lead to a loss of trust among staff, a loss of motivation and eventually the loss of talented employees and their corporate knowledge.
What if it wasn’t intentional?
Some of us are naturally warm and friendly and this can be mistaken for affection or attraction. Australian banter is often ”knocking” humour and replete with cheeky jokes and one liners. This can be used as an excuse to lapse into sexual and inappropriate or unpleasant talk under the guise of playfulness or irreverent, even black, humour.
Sexual harassers or their supporters – which can often include employers – will often claim that the perpetrator did not mean to cause the offence experienced. This may be true, or may be a means of fending off legal consequences, but from the perspective of the law (and often the victim) intent is irrelevant and ignorance is no defence.
If someone keeps doing the wrong thing and argues that they did not mean to offend, it does not take away from the discomfort, humiliation, intimidation or unpleasantness at work for the target.
Genuine remorse expressed when someone is made aware that their behaviour or comments are offensive may help in repairing the relationship between the parties and it may have meaning for victims, but this is not guaranteed. Such allegations need to be carefully investigated and dealt with.
Why is it important not to blame the victim?
When we are accused of wrongdoing, or our team member or organisation is, we may have a defensive urge to defend by “attacking”. A common psychological phenomenon is “victim shaming” or “blame shifting”. This gets in the way of properly addressing the circumstances that have contributed to the unwelcome behaviour.
Some people by virtue of their family values or cultural background have been taught to respect authority and never answer back. That does not mean they are not offended or humiliated. They may bottle up our distress or tell only family and friends.
Sexual harassment is defined, among other things, as having the potential to “intimidate”. It is not reasonable to demand someone takes on a perpetrator if they feel unsafe to do so and particularly if they fear the consequences. This fear may be realistic and justified. They may worry that after they give feedback, the behaviour will become worse or that the victim will be ostracised, marginalised or excluded by the perpetrator or their supporters.
This “paying out” on someone who complains is called victimisation and is just as inappropriate as the initial unwelcome attention and often as damaging.
What should organisations do when sexual harassment occurs?
The most empowered employees are those who can assert themselves appropriately with the alleged perpetrator if they can. At a minimum they should be able to approach HR or a respected senior manager for confidential help in eliminating the behaviour and even lodging a grievance. They should not have to rely on a transfer or leaving their employer to get away from bad behaviour. It is important that the person in a position of authority takes the matter seriously.
As a minimum, companies should have clear policies and procedures for handling complaints if and when they arise. Such policies should take such matters seriously without taking sides, uphold natural justice and ensure disciplinary outcomes are proportional to any misconduct. Companies should maintain strict confidentiality by communicating only with those who have to know and seek advice from those with objectivity and expertise to ensure the issue is not mishandled.
How can psychologists help in workplace sexual harassment?
Psychologists can help organisations to deal with the tricky process of navigating such complaints and ensuring the impact on all affected is reduced. Psychologists can help to address sexual harassment by working with victims, perpetrators and organisations. A psychologist may help a victim to:
- Unpack their feelings about the behaviour and the reasons they might have been so affected
- Provide a skilled professional sounding board to explore their options, from tackling the perpetrator to speaking up formally
- Help them manage the stress and ensure they are protecting their mental health, rather than lapsing into counterproductive coping mechanisms such as self-medicating with alcohol, food or drugs.
- Help them to “role play” conversations they might wish to have with a perpetrator or with management to bring about changed behaviour in the other person.
Psychologists can work with perpetrators to:
- Help them deal with the aftermath of a grievance that may have gone against them
- Help them understand what is and isn’t appropriate according to values, policies and laws and coach them to achieve more respectful behaviour
- Help them develop better self-awareness, anger management or frustration tolerance, so they have more control over their comments and behaviour.
Organisations can also work with psychologists to evaluate and shift workplace culture and behaviour. Psychologists can work with individuals or teams to reduce stress and help change behaviour to ensure it meets modern expectations of what is appropriate in the workplace.