Leaders need to say “not on my watch” to sexual harassment

The revelations of sexual harassment in the celebrity workplace as well as at the highest levels of government and public institutions have brought this very important aspect of discrimination and inclusion centre stage. And not before time.

This is an issue that is now high on the agenda for many corporates, and many companies GDP works with have asked for advice on how to proceed. Given the widespread #MeToo campaign, leaders are now aware that the chances are, there is sexual harassment in their workplace too. They just don’t know what to do about it.

For years, high profile and senior figures have abused their power in the workplace through inappropriate sexual behaviour that is unwanted, intimidating and offensive.

It is impossible to establish or even to estimate how much damage this behaviour has caused to innocent people who have been at a loss to know how to respond and who may have felt helpless and unable to respond to the situation.

The wave of social media #MeToo posts and articles such as “Silence Breakers” by Time Magazine that followed makes it imperative that workplace leaders in every organisation, regardless of size, sector and nationality, now need to acknowledge that this is a problem that probably affects their business also.

I am horrified and saddened when I hear of the prevalence of such behaviours especially when we look at all the reasons victims don’t speak up. Will they believe me? Will it stop? Who can I trust? Will I be judged? How will I cope with the shame?

Leaders need to confront the reality that this problem not only affects their company but that it may have been invisibly endorsed and encouraged through their own behaviour.

Clear and decisive policies are needed to ensure that there is no confusion moving forwards as to what is acceptable and not acceptable. These policies need to make clear that intention is irrelevant if the impact is harassment. Equally, culture can never be used as an excuse for bad behaviour, though it should be recognised that unchecked, culture can appear to promote it.

As we have seen through the debates, the challenge of sexual harassment is that it is not just about overt sexual advances. It encompasses behaviours – including jokes and personal remarks – which many have judged to be ‘private’ or ‘a bit of harmless fun’.

Company leaders need to take steps now to deal with the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

This needs to create a safe environment for workers who have experienced what they believe to have been sexual harassment to complain about it with no fear of retribution.

It then needs to find a sensible and objective way to deal with complaints that assesses situations fairly and equally and does not jump to conclusions.

The opportunity to speak openly is vital – whether or not it reveals there was predatory, inappropriate or bullying behaviour. The truth is that if someone feels uncomfortable then the behaviour was inappropriate even if it was not intended to exploit a position of power.

The issue of sexual harassment also needs to address that more difficult workplace boundary where two people meet at work and begin a consensual and equal relationship.

Some may think that a complexity is that people may say that when it comes to questions of what is acceptable ‘sex at work’ there is an issue of degree. Recent Economist research with YouGov shows varying levels of discomfort with sexual behaviour dependent on age and nationality.

When we consult globally and lead diversity and inclusion workshops, seminars, training and other interventions, a key message is that leaders and managers should treat an employee as the employee would want to be treated.

It is important for leaders and managers to understand that a one size fits all do not work. It creates exclusions.

Sexual harassment is one area where this cannot be the case. The fact that one employee might think that ‘banter’ is largely harmless does not mean that it can be permitted in that department or division or office.

There are things that can be done.

Clearly, unambiguous policies and leadership are essential.

We have developed campaigns to raise awareness, and worked with leaders to create policies and toolkits to ensure redress and avenues of assistance. We have trained dignity advisors and delivered dignity programmes in many parts of the world and with organisations across a wide including finance, technology and healthcare organisations.

As a leader, if you know that your behaviour is part of the problem, acknowledge it and make it clear that you are determined to change what has been the accepted status quo before. Make it clear that you won’t accept sexual harassment on your watch.

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