Sexual harassment is a problem that plagues the workplace, and one that leaders need to be prepared to deal with when running or managing an organization. Protecting employees, and cultivating a safe environment is key for optimum function of an organization. As a leader, it is up to you to ensure the employees are safe, and that the company avoids lawsuits brought on by assaulted employees whose complaints you disregarded. Here are several ways to help you deal with sexual harassment in the workplace, however, first things first…

What is sexual harassment?

According Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written. On that note, sexual harassment is not consensual interaction, flirtation or friendship. Sexual harassment is not behaviour that is mutually agreed upon. When two colleagues willfully and freely enter a sexual relationship, it is not regarded as sexual harassment. It’s of import to note that when one of these individuals has a significant influence on the other’s career trajectory, then this could cause problems, often becoming a grey area. Sexual harassment can be subtle or outright, but does not need to happen more than once to be classified as sexual harassment.

Allowing sexual harassment to run rampant in your organization can result in a bad reputation, high turnover, and losses through lawsuits. There are several steps you can take to cultivate a relatively safe work environment, and to ensure everyone knows how to deal with possible sexual harassment at work.

1.      Construct a clear sexual harassment policy

Quite a great deal of startups and SMEs do not have a clear, and well defined sexual harassment policy, and will scramble to deal with the issue only when it arises. Having a clear policy that everyone is aware of assures employees that you have their interests at heart, and may boost confidence to report cases of sexual harassment. The policy should define what sexual harassment is; outline the disciplinary actions that will be taken against a perpetrator; clearly show how the entire procedure from filing a complaint, reviewing it, investigations, to disciplinary actions, will be handled; and emphasize zero tolerance of sexual harassment.

2.      Train employees periodically on sexual harassment

Have a training session at least twice a year, educating employees on sexual harassment, and your policy on the matter. It is also crucial to have a policy on employee relationships and what is expected, as this often interacts with sexual harassment. Whilst making advances at a colleague may be viewed by the advancer as “looking for a partner”, it can easily be construed as sexual harassment by the person being pursued. The concept of consent, also needs to be heavily emphasized to discourage possible rape in the workplace. Make sure all employees understand the complaints procedures to be taken and encourage employees, especially female employees, to speak up when sexually assaulted. The emphasis is on women because research shows the majority of sexual assault cases are against female employees, especially from their superiors.

3.      Take all complaints seriously, and monitor the workplace signs of harassment

It’s tempting not to believe a sexual harassment victim. Often people find it hard to envision someone they know committing such a crime, but statistics show that 80% of rape and sexual assault victims know the perpetrator. When a complaint is filed, take it seriously and act immediately. Investigate the issue and take action accordingly. It’s also essential to take measure to ensure that the person filing a complaint is not later victimized or bullied for speaking up. The use of strong, offensive language can constitute sexual harassment and such behaviour should be discussed and agreed upon first. Watching pornography in the presence of others in the workplace may be deemed as sexual harassment as well.

4.      Be supportive and empathetic towards victims

Victims or survivors of sexual harassment may be traumatized or shaken by the assault and will need patience and understanding. Make sure they understand that no one at the organisation blames them for the assault, and they are still a valued employee. Provide mental health resources if possible.

Lastly, do not abuse your power as leader, and understand the untenable position you place a subordinate in, should you make sexual advances towards them. It is the duty of leaders to ensure the safety and comfort of their employees, and sexually harassing them is not only illegal, but will hurt your business in the long run.