Sexual Harrassment Prevention

If you’ve been asked for sexual favours to keep your job or you’ve been subjected to unwelcome sexual jokes, leering, whistling or other sexually-charged behaviours, you may be experiencing sexual harassment.

And you are not alone. Cases like the Richmond Fire Department allegations of harassment have been making headlines. And according to an International Labour Organization survey in 1996 of 2000 male and female Canadian employees, 9.7 per cent of the women surveyed said they were victims of “sexual incidents” at work, which included behaviours ranging from leering and sexual innuendo to rape).

Complimenting another’s appearance is not necessarily harassment, nor is flirting or sexual activity between mutually consenting parties. A shorthand understanding of sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual attention at work. The consequences of this kind of attention on the job, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by psychologists Lynn Offermann and Adam Malamut at George Washington University, are compromised employee health and wellbeing, as well as increased absenteeism, turnover as well as a decrease in job satisfaction, commitment to the organization and overall productivity.

Offermann and Malamut noted in their 2002 sexual harassment survey of 2749 military personnel with the U.S. Department of Defence that preventing or dealing with sexual harassment required a two-pronged approach. Organizations need to draft anti-harassment policy and procedures as well as emphasizing that these policies are only as effective as the leaders who implement them.

They suggest seven key ways to prevent sexual harassment in your organization:

1. Leaders Who Walk The Talk

Leaders must recognize the tremendous responsibility they have for creating and sustaining an ethical organization by instilling and enforcing anti-sexual harassment policies. The authors suggest that leaders at all levels of the organization must focus on eliminating sexual harassment. If a leader is sexually harassing subordinates, which can occur on occasion, then the leader’s boss must deal with the situation effectively. It’s tempting to create a policy and then believe it will eliminate the problem. Leaders cannot afford to check off anti-harassment procedures as to-do items then forget about the issue. They must respond publicly to any incidents of harassment and repeat the message that such behaviour is intolerable.

2. Leaders Who Respond Effectively

Once adequate policies and procedures are in place, a focus by the leader on stopping harassment will help people come forward with complaints. A leader commitment to eradicating sexual harassment at work signals that it is safe for staff to disclose problems or complaints. If staff can feel comfortable discussing the issue such as misunderstandings about what was intended (“I was only flirting, I didn’t realize you were offended”) or discomfort with, say, the tone of water-cooler chat (lewd comments about others, staring or sexual jokes), sexual harassment can be reduced. If leaders make public and honest efforts towards ending harassment, staff may feel greater commitment to the organization and company leadership, and as well as increased job satisfaction.

3. Investigate All Complaints

Creating a protocol for investigating complaints that is thorough, fair and consistently used when there’s a problem is important. Leaving the investigation of complains to the human resources department or the manager may not be enough. The authors suggest that a specific person, team or office be in charge of investigating complaints according to a clearly articulated process. Following up in a timely fashion is key, obtaining all the facts and documenting these efforts can help staff see that the organization takes their concerns seriously. Allowing an investigation to go on too long or selectively deciding which complaints to investigate can undermine harassment policy credibility. Talking staff out of complaining to avoid an investigation or implying that staff who complain are troublemakers will create an organization that tolerates and even condones harassment. The policy will be seen as a farce.

4. Deal With Managers Who Tolerate Sexual Harassment

Policies and procedures alone do not result in a commitment to eliminate harassment on the job. Managers may not believe they tolerate sexual harassment, but when they refrain from intervening in situations of harassment amongst their subordinates, they are condoning it. In some cases, the tolerance for inappropriate sexual behaviour is due to attitudes that minimize the importance or severity of the problem. Perceiving the problem as overblown or just a politically correct ploy to reduce people’s freedoms can spell disaster. Identifying managers who tolerate or ignore harassment issues, who don’t feel competent dealing with the problem or are unaware of company policy is important to creating a sexual harassment free organization.

5. Publicize Viable Avenues For Complaint

Failing to make the company’s sexual-harassment policy well known will undermine efforts to eradicate it. Publicizing the availability of a complaint process, a complaint hotline and the company’s commitment to do away with sexual harassment, are key. Ensuring staff know the leaders are committed to dealing with the problem, having regular conversations about what constitutes harassment and what does not as well as repeatedly advertising the complaint procedure all help reduce the incidence of sexual harassment.

6. Provide Counselling

Offering both the victim and perpetrator of sexual harassment with individual counseling is helpful to both healing and developing an understanding about why the incidents occurred. Also, mediation between the parties can help especially when there is a willingness to work things out between them. Complaints do not have to end in litigation or punitive measures. Many parties involved benefit from a mediated conversation in which each person understands the others point of view and the offending person can empathize and apologize as part of the process.

7. Awareness Training For Leaders And Staff

Everyone in the organization should be familiar with what constitutes sexually harassing behaviour, namely, unwanted sexual attention. Itemizing what behaviours constitute sexually inappropriate workplace behaviour—leering, sex jokes, suggestive posters/calendars, touching and the like are good examples to offer staff and leaders. Describing the complaint procedures, the investigation protocols, the avenues for resolving complaints and the necessity of eliminating sexual harassment are key components of training. Discussing how to let someone know their behaviour is problematic and training people in accepting feedback about sexually inappropriate behaviour – including how to apologize immediately and refrain from making excuses or jokes that minimize the situation – are important.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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