We recently ran a social media competition where we asked our followers for a topic they wanted advice on. Our winner was Kerry Oosthuysen, and her topic was: How can employers curb sexual harassment in the workplace. This is one of those topics that is often brushed under the rug, but is rife in companies. Thank you, Kerry, for bringing this topic to light.

I don’t think I have ever worked in an environment where there have been no instances of some form of sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment, in layman’s terms, refers to any conduct of a sexual nature that makes an employee feel uncomfortable. It is also, unfortunately, so prevalent in our work spaces and can so often be ignored or overlooked. Even further, sexual harassment encounters aren’t reported for several reasons a) employees feel they won’t be listened to; b) they don’t know who to talk to; c) there’s a fear of consequences if they ‘tattled’ on a colleague or superior.

It’s also important to note that sexual harassment is not gender specific. While, in most cases, it is men against women, this is not always this case. For example, male coworkers may constantly bombard a male colleague with sexually explicit photos of women, which makes him uncomfortable. This could also be a case for sexual harassment.

Dealing with sexual harassment isn’t easy. It is awkward. It can be offensive and extremely sensitive. It can hurt relationships. But, as employers and managers, we need to create a working space where sexual harassment is not tolerated. Ever. Under no circumstance. We need to curb sexual harassment and make sure the fissures don’t become canyons.

If you haven’t already, create an anti-harassment policy, and make your employees aware of it.

Having this policy in place allows your employees to fully understand what sexual harassment is, what the steps are in bringing it out in the light, and how it will be handled.

Ideally your policy should include:

  • A definition of sexual harassment
  • State in no uncertain terms that you will not tolerate sexual harassment within your company
  • Indicate that you will discipline or dismiss any wrongdoers
  • Set out a clear procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints
  • Indicate that every complaint that you receive will be investigated appropriately
  • Clearly mention that retaliation against anyone who complains about sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

Send your staff on awareness training

Send your management on training sessions that educate them about sexual harassment, how to identify it amongst your staff, and how to deal with complaints.

Similarly, send your employees on sexual harassment training that also educates them about it, explaining that they have a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment, and the steps they should take should they be harassed.

Watch your employee’s behaviour carefully.

During informal settings throughout the day, watch your employee’s’ interactions with one another. If you see flirting, inappropriate touching (this could include the smallest of touches that aren’t appropriate for colleague interaction), and inappropriate language, then sort it out immediately. Have that tough love conversation. Gently call the offender into your office and as an informal discussion describe the behavior you noticed, why you considered it inappropriate. The earlier you catch it, the better for everyone involved.

Use your discretion.

You wouldn’t tempt a child by going to an ice cream shop if you aren’t going to allow them to have one, would you? If there are members of your staff that have sexual harassment complaints against them or you have noticed inappropriate behavior from them, it would probably be a good idea to avoid them having to go on business trips with other employees, or to limit the number of socials your company has where alcohol is consumed which influences behavior even more.

Take all complaints seriously.

If someone comes to you with a sexual harassment complaint, let them know that you will take it seriously. Act immediately to investigate the complaint. If the complaint turns out to be valid, respond with the necessary disciplinary actions swiftly.

There is no guarantee that you will completely curb or snub out sexual harassment. But you can nip it in the bud, and you can definitely be aware of it. Because being ignorant of it and pretending it doesn’t exist is the worst thing you could do as it would be a poor reflection of your leadership and it would crumble any efforts to build a positive culture in your company.

Have you ever experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and was it handles effectively?