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How to 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 people, but their businesses too. We look at how companies can 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 survey from the German federal anti-discrimination office from 2015, more than 50 percent of all employees in Germany have already experienced or witnessed sexual assaults at work. Almost one in five women have been touched by colleagues against their will and twelve percent of the men also reported unwanted physical contact.

    Aside from the psychological damage harassment causes to victims, businesses suffer too. Many studies have found that experiencing harassment 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 harassment 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 prevent the harassment.

    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 reports of sexual harassment 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 on sexual harassment in the workplace.

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

    If this is not the case, look at implementing channels and ensuring they are communicated. It’s worth noting that anonymous reporting channels can make it easier for those who feel unsafe to report. While this can make the investigation more challenging, 2-way communication with the reporter can help build up trust which may result in the reporter disclosing 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 as part of your anti-harassment policy. In Germany, 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 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 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.

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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.