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How Companies Can Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

More than 50 percent of all employees have already experienced sexual assaults at work. Time to act.

by Moritz Homann 4 min

    The recent #metoo movement and Harvey Weinstein case have thrown a spotlight on the persistent problem of sexual harassment within organizations. As an increasing number of companies are recognizing the seriousness of the issue, they are tightening their procedures – not only to protect their employees, but their businesses too. We look at how companies can develop solutions and put a stop to sexual harassment in the workplace.

    What Is Sexual Harassment?

    The current EU definition of sexual harassment set out in the 2006 Equal Treatment Directive (2006/54/EC) is: “where any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature occurs, with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

    Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: How Big Is the Problem?

    According to a 2018 SSH study, 38% of women in the United States have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. It found that the workplace was the third most frequent lifetime location for sexual harassment among those polled after public spaces and private homes/residences.

    Aside from the psychological damage harassment causes to victims, businesses suffer too. Many studies have found that the experience drives women to leave their jobs, taking their ideas, connections, and potential with them. This leads to a costly need to hire and train new employees. There is also evidence that it can hurt the cohesion and functioning of teams. Companies stand to lose valuable employees if they don’t work to eliminate sexual harassment.

    5 Measures You Can Take Against Sexual Harassment in the Company

    Businesses also suffer if they are held liable. For example, employers in the UK can be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by their employees. An employer will only have a defense if they can show they took reasonable steps to avoid harassment in the workplace.

    1. Involve Management

    The CEO and Board must demonstrate that the company has a zero-tolerance approach to harassment. They must make clear that punishment for harassment applies equally across the organization, regardless of employee status. The Board should regularly review key data on sexual harassment such as the number of incident reports and the average time it takes the company to resolve cases. They should formally approve the anti-harassment policy and be included in any training courses.

    2. Ensure that employees know about and have access to confidential reporting channels through which they can report cases of sexual harassment

    If this is not the case, look at implementing whistleblowing channels including a case management software and ensuring they are communicated. It’s worth noting that reporting channels can make it easier for those who feel unsafe to file a report. While this can make the investigation more challenging, 2-way communication with the anonymous whistleblower can help build up trust which may result in the disclosure of more information.

    3. Have an anti-harassment policy and ensure all employees sign up to it

    Important aspects of the policy:

    • Clearly define the meaning of sexual harassment. In Germany, for example, the wording might be taken from the General Equal Treatment Act which includes as sexual harassment, for example, unwanted touching, salacious remarks or jokes, sexual gestures or the showing of pornographic images.
    • Using examples and case studies can help explain the meaning where it could be open to interpretation.
    • Encourage employees to report harassment. Therefore, the policy should include information on relevant reporting channels.
    • Present the procedures for investigating complaints and formal/informal resolution processes.
    • Specify the disciplinary sanctions that will apply when harassment has occurred (including dismissal where appropriate).

    4. Make training on preventing sexual harassment mandatory for all employees

    Education not only helps to safeguard against inappropriate behavior and unwanted advances by clearly defining violations, but it also empowers those who may encounter sexual harassment to recognize and report these cases. Training builds community in a workplace, with everyone working towards a common goal, and a feeling of safety. Training content should also include bystander training which teaches employees what to do if they observe sexual harassment happening to someone else.

    5. Don’t wait for employee reports to find out the extent of the problem in your company

    Be proactive and add questions in your annual employee engagement survey to find out whether staff have ever been victims of harassment or have seen it happening to someone else. If they have, find out if they ever reported it and if not, why not. This allows you to determine the effectiveness of your company’s reporting program.

    Companies must implement protections regardless of the legal framework

    In many countries, employers have a legal duty to ensure that workers are shielded from risks such as sexual harassment but some governments have failed to impose suitable protective legislation altogether. A 2017 report found that more than one-third of the world’s countries do not have any laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, resulting in some 235 million working women having to cope without legal protection.

    Even in countries with suitable laws, legal frameworks can prove both complex and confusing for workers and employers alike. It is important for companies to be proactive and take effective steps to prevent sexual harassment irrespective of the legal situation. Not only does the problem have a devastating impact on employees and their families, it has detrimental consequences for companies and long-forged corporate reputations, regardless of the level of legal coverage in any given market.

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    Moritz Homann
    Moritz Homann

    Managing Director Corporate Compliance – EQS Group | Moritz Homann is responsible for the department of Corporate Compliance products at EQS Group. In this function, he oversees the strategic development of digital workflow solutions tailored to meet the needs of Compliance Officers around the world.