Sexual harassment in the workplace is a startlingly common issue. In Canada, over one third of women and 12 percent of men say they have experienced workplace sexual harassment. These numbers are likely conservative, however, given that experiences of workplace harassment are grossly underreported. Fears of complaints not being taken seriously – or worse, retribution – have been stated as major factors in the decision to stay silent. As well, men who experience sexual harassment often fear being mocked due to restrictive ideas of masculinity.
Given the profound effects that sexual harassment can have, it’s an issue that is in critical need of attention. While workplace sexual harassment is undoubtedly complex, research by the Government of Canada indicates that it is preventable and can be addressed. Moreover, the study also found that the majority of respondents indicated a desire for more education and training.
Knowing this, what can companies do to effectively address sexual harassment and, ideally, prevent it from ever happening? What does training often miss, and how can it be improved? Here are 3 important actions that will help address workplace harassment.
- Acknowledge that harassment is about POWER.
Sexual harassment is, more than anything, about power and power structures. As such, certain populations are at an increased risk of experiencing workplace sexual harassment. While women are more likely than men to be harassed, additional layers exist. Indeed, women of colour, women with disabilities, and low-paid workers are significantly more vulnerable in the workplace. Members of the LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit) communities, too, are exceedingly subject to harassment, often on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. These power dynamics impact how people experience workplace sexual harassment and what systems are needed for prevention and support. As a result, sexual harassment in the workplace cannot be approached as a one-dimensional issue. It is imperative that anti-harassment training recognizes these intersecting layers of power.
- Put in a ZERO-TOLERANCE harassment policy that acknowledges the impacts of microaggressions.
A microaggression is an indirect slight or insult that, regardless of intention, communicates hostility. In the workplace, for example, a male colleague might ask a group of women what they are “gossiping about” while seated around a work desk. While this may seem innocuous, the message that it relays is clear: women, when together, are scheming and are not to be trusted. The problem is that comments like these, even when intended as a joke, serve to undermine entire groups of people. Because sexual harassment is about power, and because powers intersect, microaggressions set an important and dangerous precedent. By clearly defining and addressing these seemingly harmless forms of violence, managers can better ensure a safer, more positive workspace.
- Create multiple channels for REPORTING harassment, and make sure those avenues are transparent and known.
Ideally, training and workplace policies would prevent harassment from ever happening to begin with. Shifting workplace culture, however, is a process and robust systems need to be in place in the event that sexual harassment does occur. Because of the risks facing certain populations in Canada, and because not everyone faces the same barriers to reporting, employees should have options when it comes to disclosing harassment. Those options need to be clearly stated from an employee’s first day on the job and reiterated throughout their employment. By having more than one person clearly committed to addressing harassment, fears that complaints won’t be taken seriously are more likely to be quelled.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem. Training can make a difference, particularly when it’s provided in a way that is participatory rather than punitive and when it is embedded within the context of building a positive work environment. Prevention is always preferred, but it’s never too late to start making meaningful changes to your workplace that ensure the safety and health of everyone. For more information and professional advice on how to address sexual harassment in the workplace, visit harmonyatwork.ca.
Harmony@Work is Canada’s leading provider of interactive Diversity, Equity + Inclusion workplace training programs. All Harmony@Work certificate programs, customized workshops and consulting services help organizations build the awareness, skills and leadership necessary to thrive in today’s multicultural environments. Our diverse team of Harmony@Work facilitators uses science-based tools and interactive training methods that deliver results.