June 4, 2018

Why Sexual Harassment Continues to be Such a Huge Problem in Business

This is a tough one, but having been asked by several clients to deconstruct the current exposure of widespread sexual harassment across a number of high-profile work environments, I want to look in depth at this issue and explain why it continues to be such a huge problem.

Specifically: why it takes place, why it has been allowed to continue, and what can be done to address it.

Firstly, what constitutes sexual harassment?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as behaviour that annoys or upsets someone. In legal terms it is unlawful behaviour towards a person that causes mental or emotional suffering, which includes repeated, unwanted contacts without reasonable purpose.

‘Purpose’ is an important consideration, because when speaking about sexual harassment we are not talking about the perpetrator trying to demonstrate their feelings for another person who does not feel the same. We are talking about a calculated and controlled course of behaviour which the perpetrator knows is causing emotional distress.

Sexual harassment takes place because the harasser believes he/she can exploit the vulnerabilities of another in furtherance of their own unwelcome desires and that the victim will be unable to do anything about it.

It is sinister behaviour.

It is not the same as the behaviour of someone who is attracted to another who does not reciprocate, such as we might see in romantic story lines in which, in the end, the boy gets the girl – think Grease, Guys and Dolls and The Taming of the Shrew.

But the popular depiction of unreciprocated attraction is part of the problem.

For centuries popular cultural norms have served not only to depict unwelcome sexual attention as acceptable, and perhaps even necessary, to encourage another to agree to an intimate relationship. As a society we are conditioned not to view such behaviour as coercive and threatening.

In my life time I have seen media coverage in which the victim of sexual harassment has been criticised, or worse, blamed for having caused or encouraged the acts of harassment including serious sexual assaults.

Mayam Bialik, a well-known Hollywood actress and feminist, recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein maelstrom.

This was widely criticised because of its suggestion that beautifying oneself, being beautiful or being ‘the perfect 10’, came with the attendant necessity of having to live with sexual exploitation. In the article she discusses the precautions she took as a young actress, and still today to minimise the risk, such as dressing modestly, not behaving flirtatiously and other ‘common-sense’ measures.

This got me thinking about the theme of inviting or protecting oneself from the dangers of sexual harassment. We are taught from a young age that we should not put ourselves in dangerous situations.

As a woman, I have always avoided walking home alone in the dark, found refuge in a shop, or speeded up to catch up with other people if I felt that I was being followed. And at times I’ve carried hairspray to fend off potential attackers if I knew I would be travelling alone.

These are all practical ways of minimising harassment or an attack.

But what tangible measures can one take in the workplace where the assailant isn’t crouching in a dark doorway or following you as you make your way to the taxi rank?

In a high percentage of cases it will be someone to whom you are subordinate and who’s company you cannot avoid. Therefore the only really effective form of personal protection is to work for yourself or find a workplace with no hierarchy – I’ve not encountered one in three decades, have you?

Recently the Equality and Human Rights Commission has called for urgent action to protect victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In reality it is not incumbent upon an individual to take measures to avoid harassment and anyone, famous or not, who thinks a victim is in any way responsible for their own harassment ought to consider that such an attitude is as ludicrous as suggesting it’s a pedestrian’s fault if they get knocked over crossing a road.

Harassment should not happen. All organisations have had anti-harassment and equality clauses in their policies for years but it has not stopped sexual harassment from continuing to happen.

For many, these are the only protection they have but if they are ignored or not implemented, they are as useless as an empty can of pepper spray.

So why has sexual harassment been allowed to continue for so long and in so many high-profile organisations – including our very own Parliament?

The simple answer is because sexual harassment has continued to be permitted.

Both victims and witnesses often fear reprisal and so the behaviour goes unreported. Sadly, I have handled many cases in which HR departments had earned the reputation over the years of protecting the company’s position and so victims felt unable to complain until after they had left.

This can result in an Employment Tribunal claim when of course HR has to protect the interests of the company and, to the victim and witnesses who are often still employed, it reinforces this belief.

Others were aware but had incorrectly believed they should wait for a formal complaint, as opposed to being proactive. And one or two weren’t prepared to put their neck on the line because the perpetrator was the owner. I don’t wish to offend, but if that’s your attitude, you have no place working in HR.

So, what can be done to address sexual harassment and protect victims?

We need to change.

Some might think these sentiments are a little strong but it is over forty years since the Sex Discrimination Act came into law and you’re reading the words of a woman who was loudly and publicly ogled by a lorry driver on her way to the station this morning.

I should have got his number plate and his company from the vehicle because no doubt I’m not the only female he has done that to, but I was in a rush.

Wait! Is that me berating myself for not reporting it?

This is exactly what happens with victims, particularly in much more serious and powerless situations.

Victims should not have become victims in the first place. HR departments and managers need to take a much harder line in creating workplaces that are safe. I always say to managers, HR professionals and anyone with responsibility for staff well-being that you cannot ‘un-know’ what you know.

If you have been told something, whether it is rumour, informal concerns or behaviour which appears to be inappropriate, you have to act.

This is why.

I read an interesting article recently about why victims of sexual harassment do not come forward, saying most victims feel they are the only one it has happened to because the shame and powerlessness makes them feel isolated and distorts their perception of themselves.

Harassers deliberately undermine the self-esteem and stability of their victims. Victims fear for their jobs, their reputation and their future. Having lost their self-esteem it is then difficult for them to then take a huge risk which might damage everything else that makes up their lives.

We should also remember that many victims are in a relationship and fear reprisal and blame which might jeopardise these too, because they blame themselves – just as society often does.

It is HR’s job to turn victims into survivors, and make the workplace an unwelcoming environment for perpetrators.

Ironically, in my experience the perpetrators usually start portraying themselves as victims too, usually of a witch hunt, despite the last official record of one in this country being in the 1750s.

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About the author

Lisa Gillespie

Over 20 years Lisa has acted as a consultant and adviser on many HR issues and employment tribunals across public, private and third sector organisations. She has worked in most UK local authority areas on projects ranging from social care and health to training and conciliation arrangements. Lisa studied psychology before moving into employment law and HR after further study at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford, and she is also qualified in project management and counselling.