Sexual harassment is a serious issue that can have a devastating impact on employees and organizations. It is important to understand the signs of sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as the power dynamics that can contribute to it. In this article, we explore the different types of sexual harassment, how to identify signs of it, and what can be done to address it. We also discuss the impact that harassment can have on individuals and organizations, and the importance of education and prevention training.
The Cost of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome behavior toward a person that leads to humiliation or intimidation in the workplace, based on specific protected characteristics. Harassment in the workplace can lead to a hostile work environment that can be damaging to an employee's well-being, morale, and productivity. It can cause psychological and emotional trauma, job loss, or other repercussions. It can also have a negative impact on an organization's reputation and may lead to costly legal fees for both the employer and employee if a lawsuit is filed.
In a recent survey from our partners at AllVoices, 52% of respondents had been in a situation where they did not feel psychologically safe at work. This lack of comfortability in the workplace can stifle creativity, prevent new ideas from being shared, and reduce engagement, even for those who have witnessed but not experienced harassment. Additionally, the survey found that 34% of respondents had left a job due to workplace harassment concerns that went unresolved, which is difficult for employees and costly for employers.
Understanding Power Dynamics in the Workplace
Power imbalances can lead to sexual harassment in many ways. When one person has more power than another, it can create a situation where the less powerful person is in a vulnerable position. This can lead to the more powerful person taking advantage of the other, often in the form of unwanted sexual advances or unwelcome attention. This power imbalance can also lead to the harasser making demands that the less powerful person is afraid to refuse, also known as quid pro quo harassment.
These power imbalances can also make it harder for a victim to speak out about the abuse they are experiencing. The person in power is often capable of threatening or intimidating the victim, making it difficult to report the harassment or to get help. This can be especially true in workplaces or other settings where the person in power also holds a position of major authority for the company, making it even harder for victims to speak out.
Identifying Signs of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment may not always involve obvious sexual advances or physical touch but can include any unwanted physical contact that causes a person to feel uncomfortable. Some subtle signs of physical harassment at work might include patting someone on the back, caressing their shoulder, placing a hand over their shoulder, lightly brushing against their body, physically obstructing their movement, and even leaning in close. Some of these actions might seem accidental or unintentional, but if the victim feels uncomfortable AND the behavior persists, it may qualify as sexual harassment.
Verbal harassment can be even harder to define, especially when the harasser does not feel that what they are doing is wrong, and claim that they are just joking or teasing. Some signs of verbal statements that could be classified as harassment include unwelcome jokes or comments about a person's protected characteristics such as gender, race, religion, or about their physical appearance. Verbal harassment can also include name-calling and insults, verbal outbursts that threaten or intimidate, spreading rumors or gossip, as well as making unwanted suggestive comments.
Harassers may also take more of a psychological approach when addressing their victims. This could look like following or stalking coworkers around the office or beyond the workplace, excluding someone from activities or conversations, and ignoring requests to stop a behavior that is making someone feel uncomfortable. Harassment in the workplace can cause major mental health consequences on its victims, such as emotional distress, trauma, anxiety, and depression, so it is important to recognize the signs and find support when possible.
Taking Action to Address Sexual Harassment
A bystander is a person who witnesses an incident or behavior that is inappropriate or unprofessional but does not directly participate in it. They may choose to take no action or to intervene. Bystander intervention is when the witness takes action to support the victim of harassment. In the workplace, this could look like directly addressing the situation to stop or de-escalate it, distracting the harasser and giving the victim a chance to leave, or seeking assistance from another person. In all of these methods, it is important to assess the risk of potential harm and consider the safety of everyone involved.
When it comes to employee rights, everyone has the right to a workplace free from sexual harassment, and employers have a legal responsibility to investigate any claims of harassment and take corrective action if necessary. Employers should also provide more than one channel for reporting, in case a victim’s harasser is a supervisor or someone who would be involved in the reporting process. These resources for victims of sexual harassment can include a hotline or online reporting option for those who may not feel comfortable discussing the situation in person.
Workplace training is another important way to help stop sexual harassment. Prevention training that addresses harassment and discrimination, like the courses offered by EasyLlama, can help teach employees how to spot signs of sexual harassment, the consequences of engaging in unacceptable conduct, as well as strategies on how to prevent unwelcome behavior and report it if necessary. Our workplace training uses interactive knowledge checks and real-life video scenarios to keep employees engaged and retain what they’ve learned.
Ready to incorporate harassment training into your workplace? Check out our free course preview to learn more today!