Sexual harassment in the workplace can take various forms and dimensions, ranging from unwanted sexual advance to requests for sexual favours, amongst others. It can also be seen as a form of violence against women (and men alike) which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can include repeated sexual “jokes”, constant (unwanted) invitations to go on a date, or other unwelcome flirting of sexual nature. It can be a one-off incident such as touching or fondling somebody inappropriately, or even sexual abuse or rape.
Worthy of note, is the fact that sexual harassment is not the same as a mutually-agreed relationship but an action which is unwelcome, causes offence and distress and can in some situations, be physically and emotionally dangerous. Most victims feel intimidated, uncomfortable, embarrassed or threatened.
The workplace with its peculiarities in terms of roles and positions have been shown to be very prone to situations, acts and behaviours that could lead to sexual harassment. Unlike in other less formal settings, sexual harassment in the workplace could distort and disorientate the victims with very lasting consequences and impact on performance, and sometimes on their entire social well-being.
Careers have been destroyed, performance compromised and entire organisations prospect short-circuited by behaviours and actions in this mode.
In view of these consequences and impact dimensions, all employees irrespective of positions, should not only be made aware of what qualifies as sexual harassment but sufficiently knowledgeable in both the pre-disposing factors and situations including the appropriate containment measures and processes.
Examples of sexual harassment
- Sharing sexually inappropriate images or video such as pornography with co-workers (especially of opposite sex)
- Sending suggestive letters, notes or e-mails to opposite sex
- Displaying inappropriate sexual images or posters in the workplace
- Making inappropriate sexual gestures
- Looking or staring at person’s body
- Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing or body parts
- Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing or purposefully brushing up against another person
- Asking sexual questions, such as enquiries about someone’s sexual history or their sexual orientation.
- Making offensive comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
It is pertinent to note that any actions or words with a sexual undertone that interfere with an employee’s ability to work or create an uncomfortable atmosphere for an employee are considered as sexual harassment. It is also important to emphasize that victims of sexual harassment may not just be the target of the offence, but anyone who is affected by the inappropriate behaviour. The implied capacity of this behaviour like all other social anomalies to be infectious could manifest in situations where even co-workers just standing by could become affected almost the same level as the victim, like non-smokers hanging out with smokers. The inhalations and impact could be almost at same level. That is, a co-worker just standing nearby when inappropriate sexual comments are uttered may be affected, even if the comments are not directed towards them.
Steps to take in handling sexual harassment in the workplace
Step I: Prompt challenge of the situation
In most cases, the person harassing you might not be aware that they are causing offence. They may consider the words that you find offensive as mere harmless flirting. So, it is necessary to address the issue firmly and directly by informing the person(s) whose actions or words are offensive to stop, and that if the act continues, you will have no choice but to report it. The harassment may stop at that point. But if it does not, then you have at least put the person on notice. You should only confront the person if you feel it is safe to do so, but victims of physical abuse should report immediately.
Step 2: Document the occurrence
After confronting the person and he/she refuses to stop, then you can start building a case by gathering evidences. Ensure you back up any allegations you make with evidences. Collect as much detailed evidence as possible about the harassment including any offensive letters, photographs, cards or notes you receive. Keep a detailed jotter about incidents of harassment, you should also include the names of everyone involved (both those that saw or heard about the harassment), what happened, where and when it took place. Apart from documenting the actions, you also need to document the effect it had on you, on your psyche, your job performance, your health, and so on.
It is also important you begin to make copies of any work performance evaluations or letters of commendation you received from your supervisors. In some unfortunate cases when people make allegations of sexual harassment, they are being victimized by their supervisors/employers and a common allegation they use to cover this victimization is “incompetence”. You need to be able to prove that you are a competent worker, and any victimization you are faced with which may include transfer, demotion or even dismissal on the flimsy excuse of poor performance is actually as a result of your complaints.
Step 3: Make a formal report
In any well-structured organisation, there is an employee handbook that lays out the procedures to follow in order to make a complaint. It is important you follow such laid out process. Ensure you inform your supervisor and the Human Resources Department and if your supervisor is the person you are complaining about, then report to your supervisor’s supervisor. Make available all the information you have gathered and wait for them to address the issue. What reporting does is that it starts the disciplinary process where the harasser will be given an opportunity to defend him/herself.
Step 4: Explore escalation options
Most harassments that have continued beyond the first occurrence have resulted from perpetrators believing that the issues end with the victims who they generally have advantage or power over, while many have succumbed to such situations imagining being helpless, others have quit in fright without challenging the situation or seeking help beyond the perpetrator. Opportunities to escalate the occurrence to higher authorities or individuals with powers above the perpetrator most times are very strong deterrent that keep the actors in permanent check.
Step 5: Reconsider continuing on the role
Many one-man businesses in Nigeria do not have proper HR system for making complaints. So, in a situation where the alleged harasser is actually the owner of the business, the best advice is to think through the decision to continue on the role. There is no point reporting someone who is the person you are complaining about. Even if you had followed all the steps mentioned above, it is unlikely you will get a favourable outcome. The victim should weigh different options (including resignation) before final decision.
Step 6: Monitor
You need to monitor the situation after the internal disciplinary process has run its course. Monitor to check if there are changes in the harasser, whether positive or negative. You need to ascertain whether the person is still harassing you or the harassment has graduated to victimization.
This will determine what further step you should take or whether you should seek for legal assistance.
- If the person has stopped harassing you, then that is great news. You can stop here.
- If the person has stopped harassing you, but then started victimizing you, then you should report the situation to HR, this time not as harassment but as victimization.
- If HR has refused to take any action against the person or has decided that you have no case, then you should either quit or seek legal redress.
Workplace harassment has become a regular occurrence and it is hardly considered newsworthy. The truth is that both male and female are exposed to sexual harassment with its impact on individual and organizational performance. Measures to prevent/curtail sexual harassment should be prominent in organisations’ policies.