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Recently I took part in a discussion for SBS’ Insight’s program about Sexual Harassment at work.

What became really clear, really quickly in the discussion, was that 31 years since legislation was introduced, people are still questioning whether it is a “real” issue; and many, many people still struggle with what it may, or may not be.

I will start as SBS did, with the legal definition:“Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.”

Last night’s program reflects what I have found when consulting with organisations on this issue. There are as many personal interpretations of the definition as there are people in any room at any one time.

People often ask me for the “definitive” answer; and the answer to that is that there isn’t one.

At the simple end of the scale what one person believes is flirtatious; another may find intimidating, humiliating or offensive. There will never be a universal agreement on this, because if there is mutual attraction, “flirtation” can be a perfectly acceptable behaviour. If it is one sided however, or moves too quickly, or becomes unwelcome then this behaviour can take on a menacing tone, particularly if one party is in a position of power over the other.

Of great importance is the Respect being demonstrated by the behaviour.  This is the often seemingly intangible difference that some find hard to “see”. Similar words uttered by a person who clearly respects the people they work with, take on a completely different meaning when uttered by a person who does not consistently demonstrate respect for their colleagues.

So, I would like to suggest the following simple guidelines for your organisation (this does not replace the need for legal advice and is no way meant to be taken as the “definitive” answer):

To protect yourself from being accused of inappropriate behaviour please note:

  1. The workplace is designed for people to work. If you are actively looking for romantic or sexual liaisons, you should pursue this elsewhere.
  2. If you find that the way a person dresses is particularly “attractive” to you, please accept this does not mean they are actually dressing to attract you.
  3. A friendly conversation and smile, does not equal a wish to have a sexual or romantic relationship.
  4. If you find someone attractive and they are younger than you and/or more junior than you in the organisation, understand they may feel any approach from you is intimidating. Be very cautious. If in doubt, don’t!
  5. If you find someone attractive and they are your peer, or they are older than you, or more senior to you, understand that they may find any approach from you intimidating, humiliating or offensive.  Be very cautious. If in doubt, don’t!
  6. If someone says “no”, do not go back a second time. Please do not assume they are playing some sort of game with you.
  7. If someone tells you your behaviour is unwelcome, resist the urge to justify it.  Apologise and walk away – without hesitation.

If you find another person’s behaviour to be unwelcome please note:

  1. Every employee has a right to feel comfortable at work, and to work in an environment that is free from Sexual Harassment
  2. If someone causes you to feel uncomfortable because they are making sexual advances towards you (through words, behaviour, touching), or discussing or displaying material of a sexual nature – if you can – tell them to stop; if you can’t, ask someone else to help you.
  3. If you feel fearful – seek help immediately.

And to clarify:

  1. If the attraction is genuinely mutual and genuinely consensual, this is not Sexual Harassment (but please understand “mutual” is not reliant on your own interpretation).  If in doubt, clarify.
  2. If any relationship is called to an end by one party, and the other party continues to pursue the relationship at work, this can be Sexual Harassment

It cannot be underestimated how important it is for Employers to show Leadership in this area. The way the Leaders of an organisation behave will be taken as the living, breathing examples of how everyone in the organisation can behave.

Even with the best Leadership, Sexual Harassment can still occur. It is how the Leadership responds that will determine if you can protect your organisation’s culture and reputation, and the health and safety of your employees.

Good employers know that Sexual Harassment creates a toxic work environment, and can turn a high performing team into a dysfunctional and non productive team. In the very worst cases, this has resulted in criminal assaults directly connected to the workplace.

If you want your workplace to be Productive, Healthy and Safe, you need to be confident that people in your organisation will know what to do if they become aware of a problem. This is not something most people pick up by osmosis; nor is it “common sense”.  And not everyone feels comfortable speaking up (in fact, the research would indicate, most people don’t).  Good training and advice from an expert is essential.

A Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission survey from 2012 reports that “over one in five people (21%) over the age of 15 years experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years. Sexual harassment is a particular problem for women… But sexual harassment is not confined to women as targets: one in six men (16%) experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years”.

If one in five people are experiencing Sexual Harassment at work, it’s probable that there are many who are also witnessing it. So let’s start calling it out. Let’s start talking – seriously – about Sexual Harassment…

If you’d like to start the conversation, contact me at Worksense Solutions

And tune in to Insight on SBS on Tuesday 12th May to experience the discussion from many different points of view.