By Karin Bosman

Not a sexy subject

During one of my workshops for HR managers in Aruba, a participant told me that she had second thoughts about attending it because sexual workplace harassment is a difficult, complicated and emotional subject. I told her that it’s indeed not a sexy subject, because it has nothing to do with sex but by not speaking about it nothing will ever change. Sexual workplace harassment is something that we have to learn to understand. Why it still occurs despite all the rules, codes, policies and laws. And what the effect is of sexual workplace harassment, because that doesn’t stop at the victim, it continues. Within the coming months I will highlight all the different aspects of sexual workplace harassment. I will bring transparency into the grey areas of this topic, which will create more awareness and understanding. These are two necessary things in combating against sexual workplace harassment in an effective way. In this week’s column I will give you a brief summery on how theory and practice of sexual workplace harassment are not always complementary.

Sexual workplace harassment in theory

On the Internet everybody can find the definition of sexual workplace harassment, the different forms of the harassment and information on how to recognize and prevent it from happening. That it’s about unwanted behavior of a sexual nature.

A victim should confront the offender or speak to the HR managers or the counselor of the company when the harassment occurs.

Managers and superiors should be educated on how to act on the harassment by training and that via complaint filing, offenders can be hold accountable. Organizations must have policies to prevent sexual workplace harassment, law should encourage employers to protect their employees. And finally healthy officers, labor and employers confederations must be aware of company policies on sexual workplace harassment. So theoretically every workplace should be safe and healthy.

Sexual workplace harassment in practice

But like the HR manager in Aruba said, sexual workplace harassment is a difficult, complicated and emotional subject. Without accepting and understanding these deeply rooted emotions, sexual workplace harassment remains a taboo and the existent theory will never be sufficient enough. The effects on organizations must be specified: the contra productivity of sexual workplace harassment should be made clear and measurable in order to make policy-makers act on a more productive, effective and willing way to protect employees from being sexual harassed at the workplace.

The grey areas of sexual workplace harassment aren’t that grey as we think they are, because this area can be clarified like all other areas of the harassment with having respect and showing understanding.

 Because of the taboo, there are almost no false complaints of sexual workplace harassment, less than 1% of the complaints are false. The shame and humiliation victim’s experience ensures the offenders of their anonymity and it increases their power. How trustworthy are HR managers or counselors and in what way can we rely on promises made within polices and laws, when all parties involved do not fully cooperate.

Elimination of sexual workplace harassment

To be honest I don’t think we can completely eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace because of the history of this violence and the remaining existence of power and control that seems to be fundamental in our work environment.

Nevertheless I strongly believe that we can reduce this violence against both women and men when we truly understand what sexual workplace harassment really contains.

What the effects are for all parties involved, when we learn more about bystanders stress and the power of speaking-up and creating awareness. About the personalities of the offenders, that the harassment can happen to everyone and that it has nothing to do with age, appearance or education.

I believe in the importance of trained and educated HR managers and counselors so that they are fully aware of the consequences of their advice; legally and physiologically. Besides managers and superiors, all employees should be trained on how to interpreted the company policy on this subject and have a full understanding of complaint filing and other procedures in the languages they understand.

This includes the important influence bystanders have when they report the sexual harassment they have witnessed.

Breaking with the taboo of sexual workplace harassment

This will be a challenge for all of us because breaking with a taboo like sexual workplace harassment asks a great deal of us. Because this means that all of us have to make a commitment and embrace those who dare to speak-up by believing them and by placing their experience in the center. It’s not about how the behavior is meant to be, it’s about how the behavior is experienced.

It’s about learning on how to respect and understand each other, about where and how to draw the line from a victims, employers, bystanders and offenders point of view. But when you want to break with a taboo you also need public awareness.

In order to work on this together, the public needs to have a common understanding of what sexual workplace harassment is and how it relates to a safe and healthy work environment. That’s why the experience of victims have a crucial role in creating this awareness and this relies heavily on them, because how would you feel when you would be groped and preyed upon by your boss?

Next week What are the consequences of not being protected by well-implemented company policies?
IMG_2084Karin Bosman is Director of About Workplace Harassment (AWH), from Netherlands international speaker, experience expert and politically active on this topic for more than two years. Speaks from her experiences and studies to encourage people to speak and stand-up against sexual workplace harassment by acting on it. She tweets at @AboutHarassment


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