Sexual Harassment: Recognize It, Solve It.

sexy office, sexual harassment,

 Can A Sexual Office Culture Change?

Scathing reports about organizational sexual misconduct and its mishandling seem to be rampant lately.

The CBC’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment against Jian Gomenshi and reports of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Military, are most recent examples.

Investigators recommend better policy, and enforcement.

 All necessary and long overdue.  Catching offenders and holding them accountable is important. 

And, so too, is changing organizations where sexual harassment has taken root.

But how?


Here are 5 ways to root-out sexual harassment in your workplace:


1.  Recognize how Sexual Harassment Starts To Takes Root

Sexual joking and innuendo tend to escalate to sexual harassment and even sexual assault.  Incivility and disrespect progress along a continuum to more extreme forms of harassment and sometimes physical violence. Macho work environments dictate rigid prescriptions for behaviour:

For example, stereotypes such as: “Tough men don’t show they care” or, “Real women don’t do men’s jobs”, may be common beliefs.  In this environment, neither gender can display the full range of human experience—it’s like an emotional straight-jacket.

And, these environments don’t reflect the population—there are too few women hired and in leadership positions.


2.  Start with Leaders

Managers have to become aware of the issue in its infancy.  If they’ve routinely let sexual innuendo and toilet humour go in their presence, they can commit to not letting it go.

But, they need to remain positive.

For example, I worked with a leader worried about what would happen if he focussed on respectful behaviour. He thought his site would become a humourless, drab place.

Leaders can let staff know being funny and joking around is important.  But, jokes made at someone’s expense don’t belong at work.  And, the respectful workplace policy will be followed if harmful humour is used.


3.  Beware Managers Who Have Lost Credibility

 If a supervisor has been letting sexual harassment go, he or she will have an up-hill battle. There’s no credibility.  If the manager has been sexually harassing staff, the manager needs to go.

Those turning a blind-eye, have no credibility and they may need to leave as they may never regain staff respect.

Others, will have to build back their credibility. For example, I worked with a leader who had to take the long road back to being credible. He had damaged his reputation by bullying female staff. They quit and told others in the industry what happened. He worked on himself, his leadership style and stayed at it, to retain women staff.

4.  Staff Can Help

Encourage male staff to influence each other—men can talk to men about stopping sexual harassment and bullying.  For example, I worked with a firefighter who recognized he had been harassing and bullying both men and women at work. He stopped joining in, or starting situations where someone was getting picked on. He had a lot of sway, and the clique he belonged to, stopped as well.


5.  Find Pockets of Health and Do What They Do

Most organizations have pockets of health. These are places where, for some reason, the problem doesn’t exist, or was dealt with, and has truly gone away. Find these areas.

Ask staff to come forward and let you know if they work in a unit, on a job site, or in a department, or with a boss, where there is respect and both genders working well together. Then study what that team, or area is doing right. Distill these lessons and apply them to other spots in the organization.

For example, I worked with an organization where bullying and sexual harassment was common. One small area was able to turn itself around. If the organization had studied how they did it, it could have adopted a successful home-grown strategy.

Policy and enforcement sends the message that sexual harassment is wrong. It has to be there. And, at the same time, employees need to know what works and what life at the organization looks like when everyone is functioning well together.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  Dr. Newman can be contacted at:

To hear the full interview from the CBC Early Edition, listen below:


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