Author: Lehanne Bleumink, Gold Seal HR Services Manager.

No workplace, big or small, is immune to sexual harassment. It is important for senior management in every business, even small business, to take strong action against sexual harassment in the workplace. Ensuring senior management promote a culture where employees feel able to speak up about poor practices or behaviours within the organisation is key to this.

Unfortunately it takes shocking news and research reports to spark necessary dialogue about the implications of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace and extensions of the workplace. It highlights that at all levels, professions and industries; sexual harassment is a risk and cannot be taken lightly. This applies not only for the victims, but for the businesses that risk reputational damage and disruption.

What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is behavior of a sexual nature that involves uninvited or unwelcome behavior that makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, where the reaction is reasonable in the circumstances. It can be physical, spoken or written.

Just because someone does not object to inappropriate behaviour in the workplace at the time, it does not mean that they are consenting to the behaviour. Sexual harassment is covered in the workplace when it happens at work, at work-related events, between people sharing the same workplace, or between colleagues outside of work. A single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it doesn’t have to be repeated.

There are a number of areas where employers can be proactive to help stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace:

    Formalise a zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment in policies and procedures, which clearly define management’s position, be sure to communicate this message and provide copies of your policies and procedures to employees through every communication method available to your business. Every staff member — both incoming and existing — should be aware of the company’s policy on sexual harassment, and how sexual harassment is defined in the workplace.
    While a sexual harassment policy can outline the standards of acceptable behaviour and conduct, training will help employees retain the information and speak up to report incidents. Employees come from a vast range of backgrounds, beliefs, cultures and ages. Training sets out in very clear terms the type of behaviour that is unacceptable in the workplace.
    Making a claim of sexual harassment can be daunting and deeply personal. Often, many victims stay silent out of fear that it will harm their careers or label them as troublemakers. It’s important that employees are aware of the process to make such complaints, and that their information and details will be treated seriously and confidentially.
    It is up to the victim whether they consider a particular incident as a form of sexual harassment. Even if the incident took place out-of-hours, outside the workplace – or even if you don’t find the accusation personally offensive – all claims must be properly investigated. Sexual harassment is indefensible in any workplace; both victims and witnesses must be encouraged to come forward. They must have confidence in the robust and fair processes and procedures put in place and management have a responsibility to ensure the workplace is safe from any form of harassment.

It’s important for an employer to have the relevant policies and procedures in place to protect employees and their business. It’s time for business leaders to be proactive and lead the path to change.

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It may be worth considering all staff undertake the Fair Treatment in the Workplace online learning module.

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