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​Getting a Handle on Harassment

Articles Neil Hodge May 30, 2021

Organizations must keep a close eye on workplace behavior and make sure employees are protected.

Organizations like to think — and especially say — that sexist and misogynistic behavior has no place in the workplace, and many companies claim that they have a "zero tolerance" approach toward it. Employers also like to shout about the comprehensive policies and complaint procedures they have in place to investigate cases, which are often coupled with a strong ethical culture that shows boardroom backing and leadership.

The reality is often very different, however: Organizations are often unsure about how to pursue complaints, or even understand whether the alleged conduct amounts to sexual harassment. And following the revelations and allegations surrounding Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's behavior on the casting couch, other recent examples show that senior management and directors are not to be excluded from such oversight either.

In March, for example, the CEO and founder of fashion retailer Ted Baker, Ray Kelvin, resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct centering around "inappropriate hugging" and "further serious allegations" made against him last December on the campaigning workers' rights website Kelvin has always denied the allegations.

What's considered appropriate behavior in the workplace is continuing to evolve, whether it applies to the C-suite suite or front-line employees. Organizations must be highly attuned to these changes and prepared to respond accordingly. Moreover, internal auditors have an important role in checking that employees are listened to, complaints are acted on, and that no one is immune from scrutiny — including managers and executives. 

"Sexual harassment occurs in businesses of all sizes, and no single employer should ignore it," says Rita Trehan, CEO at human resource (HR) consultancy Dare Worldwide in London. "Simply taking action when it surfaces is not enough to ensure that you are creating an equal and comfortable working environment for all: The real task for leadership is ensuring that the issues do not surface in the first place by having clear values and a culture that reflects this."

Defining the Problem

Workplace sexual harassment is more common than organizations would like to admit, possibly because the conduct is not always overt — at least not initially. What starts as innocent employee behavior such as office "banter," light-hearted teasing, jokes, and good-natured squabbles can quickly turn sour.

Generally, sexual harassment, or conduct of a sexual nature that is unwanted, can apply to all genders. It has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for him or her.

Lawyers warn that behavior can still be considered sexual harassment even if the alleged harasser didn't mean for it to be, or if the conduct was not intentionally directed at a specific person — nude or explicit images left displayed on a computer screen, for example. Furthermore, even if an employee has put up with such conduct for years, it does not mean that it is acceptable or that the person sought such behavior — even if that employee went along with the jokes as a coping strategy.

Policy and Communication

Fundamental to any sexual harassment response is the need for a robust and easily understandable policy outlining what is considered sexual harassment, and what the consequences are for noncompliance. It is important not only to have a policy, but to make sure it is communicated organizationwide, according to experts.

Working with HR, internal audit functions should "ensure that complainants know who the complaint should be made to and ensure the person with day-to-day management of the complaint is impartial, objective, and trained thoroughly in dealing with such sensitive matters," says Ed Cotton, partner at U.K. law firm TLT. "Failure to proactively address sexual harassment in the workplace can result not only in costly litigation, but also loss of productivity, negative publicity, damage to employee morale, and high staff turnover rates."

People's understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment often varies from person to person, so it is a priority to educate staff and management as to what kinds of behavior and language may amount to harassment and what the boundaries are. According to Sue Morrison, managing director at employment law advisory firm By Design Group, internal auditors should ensure that organizations provide workplace training on the topic, as well as on equality and diversity. She also recommends that internal audit, working closely with HR, make sure employers have clear and rigorous policies in place that not only act as a deterrent for any potential harasser, but ensure that victims know that they can and should report any conduct and that they would be protected should they do so.

Internal auditors should also review what steps the organization can take following an allegation. Morrison says that if employees have been harassed, or feel that they have, organizations should refer them to a counseling service. Employers should also review their disciplinary processes so that they are sufficient to tackle the issue if misconduct is found to have occurred: For example, the company may need to separate the complainant from the accused or suspend the alleged harasser.

Training and Culture

Ultimately, says Patrick Williams, clinical director at well-being specialists LifeWorks, prevention is the best policy, and internal audit will have a key role in ensuring that expectations about acceptable workplace conduct is both understood and communicated effectively. "All employees need to be made aware of their company's code of professional behavior, workplace harassment policies, and where help is available," Williams says. "All employees — male and female, senior management, and field workers — must be required to take harassment training."

Since the sexual misconduct allegations at Ted Baker, the company has renewed training for all employees on HR policies and procedures and on acceptable workplace conduct. It also now maintains an independent and confidential whistleblowing hotline and has enhanced the oversight of both people and culture matters at the board level.

Creating a culture of inclusivity begins with managers, Williams says, and internal audit must check that the process is reviewed to retain its effectiveness. "Employees need to see that there is zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, bullying, intimidation, or unprofessional behavior," he says. "By doing so, managers can help create a healthy workplace in which all employees feel respected, valued, and safe."

Neil Hodge

Neil Hodge is a Freelance Journalist Based in Nottingham, UK.