Sexual Harassment At Work: Are we allowing it to be part of the culture? by Karolina Silva

Karolina Silva is a Psychologist with a MSc in Occupational and Business Psychology.

Experience in Counseling and HR, mainly in recruitment, career coaching, performance and organisational environment. Well-being and Mental Health promoter at work.

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We all look and feel so amazed and astonished when a sexual harassment case at work comes up... The truth is that this happens every day, everywhere, because in a certain way society allows it and even in some cases rewards it.  Bullying and harassment are unacceptable (not to mention immoral and unethical) behaviours but, what happens when society sees them as positive, mainly at work, where dominant and aggressive personalities are seen as traits of proper leaders?

In some cultures, sexual harassment is very common and most of the time it goes unnoticed. This can be because the victim -as well as the perpetrator- justifies the action. Indeed, the gravity of the situation differs from culture to culture and the victim tends to doubt its severity, mainly because when they share the experience with someone else, it is seen as something temporary, a minor misunderstanding or even an exaggeration on the part of the victim.

For example, within a working environment where sexual jokes and comments are openly accepted, these can often become normalized, making the situation even more complicated for victims who want to raise a complaint when feeling uncomfortable. These types of situations are likely to happen when the company culture and values are not clear enough or based on unethical behaviours that, in the end, are even rewarded in some way (e.g. managers employing rude and demeaning language in order to ‘motivate’ the team and impose their leadership is seen as necessary or productive).

Sexual harassment is difficult to prove and it is even more difficult to tackle, but why?

Self-esteem plays an important role in how people react towards certain types of sexual harassment. When society accepts beliefs that are disadvantageous for a particular societal group, this is highly likely to influence that group’s self-esteem and the way a person sees themselves. Moreover, this is why culture in the workplace plays an important role, because it could dictate how employees see themselves.

As well as self-esteem, the education level and professional preparation of the person might also play an essential role in the way in which victims react when they are sexually harassed by interviewers or directors. In some work industries, for example, modelling, it is common to find candidates that are not well prepared or highly educated on their rights. This could make them more prone to what higher authorities can or cannot do when recruiting and hiring, due to the fact that they do not possess the knowledge they need to confront these situations. Moreover, some employers know this and might even exploit it, which tends to complicate the matter even more.  

Another factor that can affect how someone will react towards sexual harassment –in this case, an employee’s reaction- is their social circle and the social support that is in place. Most of the time, not having support makes things more difficult to handle, and when someone is a victim of sexual harassment, support is required. The least employers can do is to have a department responsible for solving these kinds of issues, by offering help to those who need it and taking measures to deal with harassers. Additionally, the employers are responsible for analysing the organisational culture and making sure it provides a healthy and positive environment in which every individual can develop.

All of this shows us how vicarious learning can be decisive in the way some people view or understand sexual harassment. It is due to the benefits they think it could get them in the future and what they have seen other gain (or lose). For example, tolerating inappropriate sexual behaviour (e.g. sexual insinuations or touching) from a boss because that is a way of getting a promotion, could have all started because someone else did it in the past and, therefore, led by example. Unfortunately, these types of things happen and are sometimes difficult to prove due to lack of information about what sexual harassment is, what the law claims and what the employee’s rights are.  

Knowing one’s rights and understanding that the law is there for a reason, is one of the most important variables when addressing this topic and to help us protect ourselves. Otherwise, when we are ignorant of our legal rights, manipulation and unethical behaviours happen right in front of us and the perpetrator gets away with. More importantly, the perpetrator knows he (or she) can get away with it because the victims are too scared or ignorant to do something about it. This is why it is so important to at least know the basics of sexual harassment and encourage people to build up their self-esteem, developing the power of saying no and seeking help when necessary.

So, what can be done at work?

As always, proper training in this area can prove useful for managers who can learn how to support and handle a situation if someone reports being a victim of harassment at work. However, programmes or guidelines should be in place at work to show employee’s what to look out for and how to stop it. The training and guidelines provided can be very basic, focusing on what the employment law defines harassment and bullying as, which will help them understand when to take the issue to the next level. However, some employers have taken a passive approach to this and excuse themselves by stating that the information is there and it is the employee who has the responsibility of taking action. But we all know that in today’s world, it is very common to have employees who work out of desperation and necessity, who don’t have the time or capacity to study everything they need to know to deal with these issues accordingly. It should be an employer’s priority to have a healthy employee who grows as a person, feels supported and can tackle issues at work in the most assertive manner possible.

Moreover, the HR department can review the organisational culture and values; this will make a significant improvement if done by prepared professionals (which nowadays is somewhat squandered in said departments). It does not matter what the industry is, sexual harassment, or any type of bullying at work happens because there is a lack of clear values, ethical culture and the business values are in some way distorted. HR departments should be kept updated about legalities and making sure that the business identity, culture, values and ethics are socially responsible and coherent with the business purposes and the employee’s well-being.

Therefore, one of the most important factors for any type of issue is education for men and women alike, because the main problem we face most of the time is when victims accept the harassment because they think it is part of what it takes to get the job which, if you think about it, is absolutely unhealthy. If we allow this to continue (and we do allow it), not only will it be harmful for everyone’s self-esteem, but it will drastically change our future and it will become very bleak. Those ‘in power’ tend to get away with a lot, and that change is long overdue. We know authority figures are overwhelming and necessary to some degree, but the biggest problem is when people believe there is nothing they can do about it and that it is just the way life is.

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