Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

What is workplace sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Any conduct of a sexual nature that makes an employee uncomfortable has the potential to be sexual harassment. There is no requirement for a pattern of behaviour - one incident may be sufficient to constitute sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment at the workplace is generally classified into two distinct types:

  • Quid pro quo meaning seeking sexual favours or advances in exchange for work benefits. Noncompliance is met with retaliatory action such as dismissal, demotion, difficult work conditions.
  • Hostile working environment is a more pervasive form of sexual harassment involving work conditions or behaviour that make the work environment 'hostile' for women to be in.

Examples of Sexual Harassment:

  • Sexual comments, jokes, gestures, noises, propositions.
  • Referring to an adult as "honey”, “sweetie”, or “babe”.
  • Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences, or history.
  • Making sexual comments about a person’s clothing, body or looks.
  • Display of sexual pictures.
  • Letters, email, posters, gifts, and/or materials of a sexual nature.
  • Invading a person’s body space, standing closer than appropriate or necessary.
  • Unwanted physical touches.
  • Deliberate sexual touching or brushing up against, or leaning over, or pinching.
  • Tearing, pulling, yanking, a person’s clothing.
  • Exposing herself/ himself.

Strategies for Prevention

For Employees:

  • Speaking about sexual harassment is effective in making the problem visible. People acknowledge that it exists and this in turn leads one to take effective measures against it. It helps in changing attitudes of people towards this issue. It mobilizes public opinion against it and makes it difficult for a potential harasser to commit the crime.
  • Set Boundaries: Say "NO" clearly, firmly and without smiling when you are asked to go places, do things, respond to questions or engage in situations that make you uncomfortable. This is the best way to let the harasser know that his behaviour is offensive.
  • Documentation: Keep track of events in a journal and keep any letters or notes or other documents you receive. Write down the dates, times, places, and an account of what happened. Write down the names of any witnesses. This can be used as evidence in a case or complaint.
  • Trust your own instincts about possible danger. In an uncomfortable situation, be direct and honest, and remove yourself from the situation immediately. Regardless of your previous behaviour or signals you may have given earlier, you have the absolute right to halt any sexual exchange at any time.
  • Talk to other co-workers; you may not be the only one harassed by this person. Inform a trusted colleague and try to insure that s/he is a witness to a situation where you are being sexually harassed. This will be useful later if you chose to file a formal complaint.
  • Send a copy of sexual harassment policy to the harasser with the appropriate sections underlined.
  • Explore the different avenues available to you and file a formal complaint if necessary. If your organization does not have an anti-sexual harassment policy, ensure that your employer formulates one.

For Employers:

  • Adopt a clear sexual harassment policy which:
    - defines sexual harassment
    - states in no uncertain terms that employers will not tolerate sexual harassment
    - states that wrongdoers will be disciplined or fired
    - sets out a clear procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints
    - states that you will investigate fully any complaint that received
    - states that you will not tolerate retaliation against anyone who complains about sexual harassment.
  • Conduct training sessionsfor employees that teach them what sexual harassment is, explain that employees have a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment, review your complaint procedure and encourage employees to use it. Employees should also be educated regarding responsible behaviour in the workplace.
  • Educate managers and supervisors about sexual harassment and on how to deal with complaints.
  • Monitor your workplace. Keep the lines of communication open. Meet your employees periodically and talk to them. Talk to supervisors and managers about what is going on.
  • Establish a clear complaint procedure that establishes a process for handling complaints, investigating and documenting charges and correcting misconduct. Create an open atmosphere in which complaints can be raised without fear of retaliation.
  • Notify employees of their rights, including how to report incidents of harassment.
  • Take all complaints seriously and act immediately to investigate the complaint.
  • Develop a written anti-harassment policy and make sure that all employees have a copy of it.

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