How to stop sexual harassment in the workplace

It may feel a bit early in the year to start talking about sexual harassment in the workplace :0 but this January, it’s come up top of the agenda for one of my corporate clients. In many ways their enquiry is positive; this is an organisation that my have historically ‘looked the other way’, but now knows that’s no longer acceptable.

I, no doubt like you, would like to have thought that ‘building back better’ would have meant the eradication of sexual harassment in the workplace, but alas no, here we are again.

To that point, since lockdown, we’ve all seen a few uncomfortable things – even in online workspaces.  It may be a comment on the internal Slack channel, a joke in a WhatsApp thread or live in a meeting with someone who is making the most of shall we say ‘home working.’

If you have, you’re not alone as new research shows women are experiencing unprecedented sexual harassment in the workplace since the shift to online meetings and messaging groups. 

In your online meetings or on internal chats, this can look like: 

-Inappropriate ‘jokes’ in online chats, often written off as ‘banter’
-Colleagues on the toilet, in the bathtub, half-dressed or even fondling themselves
-Remarks encouraging a female colleague to wear more revealing clothes 
-Offensive jokes about sexism or intersectional identities more widely 
-Suggestions for women to wear more make-up

These behaviours have risen in the last two years according to research from a leading employment law firm Royds Withy Kin. And it’s no wonder, as their research with over 100 firms financial services businesses found that 90% admitted they’d not updated any of their harassment guidelines during that time.

This is despite the rise of these issues during arguably the biggest change of working patterns we’ve seen in decades. In a weird way, for some, it’s easy for employers to overlook sexual harassment as they rationalise women are further away from potential physical danger.

However, that ignores the fact that no assailant starts by attacking women from the first comment they ever make. Even Epstein, let alone Ghislaine Maxwell, no doubt started with jokes and comments. Both learned over time just how much you could actually get away with – to all our detriment. 

It was no surprise to learn the police officer who murdered Sarah Everard had been nicknamed ‘The Rapist’ by his colleagues due to his reputation for what he shared in online forums, again often a precursor to sexual harassment and so much more. That was my car crash of a situation, but I’d love to know how you handled a speaking event that didn’t go well? What did you learn and what would you do differently?

If you’ve noticed an increase in sexual harassment in the workplace, there are a few things you could do

1. If it’s a one-to-one meeting, you could say ‘In this age of employee surveillance, let’s just assume someone’s recording these sessions’. A smile on your face could even disarm while keeping holding the truth of the statement. 
2. If a colleague is in an odd state of undress, ask if you should come back later as they no doubt got the time wrong. I used this twice at university when entering the dorm room of guys I’d been assigned to work with, who had no shirts on when I arrived for our study session – claiming to be ‘just out of the shower’. My ‘innocent’ question embarrassed them enough, they quickly dressed. 
3. Smile and ask ‘I know we’re friendly, but would you say that to me if we were in the office together?’
4. Find out from your HR team the last time they updated harassment policies and how it takes online working into account. 
5. Smile and seemingly joke ‘You wouldn’t talk to HR, your boss (or a colleague you both respect) with a mouth like that would you?’

If that’s useful, you may want to check out this video below with even more additional tips for handling difficult people and offensive comments.

Lastly, if you or your team are planning for the upcoming International Women’s Day, I’d love to help out by speaking with your audience! 

Check out my latest video about how you can #BreakTheBias 

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