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Almost every person knows of someone who has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. It is not uncommon for the victims of sexual harassment to feel ashamed and afraid of social retaliation if they speak out. As a result, many people keep their experiences as a secret locked in a box.

But this is slowly changing. Following the recent wake of allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, an increasing number of women from all over the world has found the courage to unlock these burdensome boxes.

As prominent Hollywood actors, golden-medal winning athletes, and female members of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have come forward to share their stories, we finally began to grasp the extent of the problem.

What seems to be different this time is that these women are finding the safe space to be heard.

“I believe the #metoomovement and the fact that more people are supporting and listening to the victims have really encouraged a lot of women to siege this opportunity to voice their own experiences of sexual harassment in their everyday lives, including at work,” explains Telfer School of Management Professor Jane O’Reilly. Professor O’Reilly is doing research on interpersonal mistreatment in organizations, including sexual harassment.

Professeure souriante

Who are the primary victims of workplace sexual harassment?

It’s hard to ignore that “sexual harassment happens primarily to women,” explains Professor O’Reilly. According to a 2017 public consultation prepared by Employment and Social Development Canada, women are more likely to have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace than their male colleagues.

A 2017 survey suggests that 53% of Canadian women have experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment at some point in their careers, but the numbers might be higher. As Professor O'Reilly explains, "sexual harassment at work is widely under reported in organizations."

You don’t belong in this organization

Professor O’Reilly explains that women become target of sexual harassment at work for many reasons, but in a male-dominated working environments, “sexual harassment is often used as an insidious tool to push women away; to send the signal that they don’t belong in the organization,” she explains.

Unfortunately, the instigators often succeed in predominantly male working environments: “in many cases, the victims either completely leave the field or move their careers into directions within the organization that are more supportive of women,” Professor O’Reilly notes.

“What’s the big deal?”

Many forms of sexual harassment in the workplace are subtle and, as a result, very difficult to notice. Sexual harassment can be conveyed in nonverbal communication, through subtle but unwanted touches, and under the guise of harmless romantic overtures.  As a bystander, one may not suspect anything harmful when a colleague makes repeated flirtatious compliments towards another colleague.

However, when employees and their managers turn a blind eye on more subtle forms of sexual harassment, they are sending the wrong message: “This attitude can open the door to more severe forms of sexual harassment to happen,” warns Professor O’Reilly.

Bystanders’ reactions matter a lot

In her research, Professor O’Reilly specifically looks at the role a bystander plays after witnessing a colleague’s experience of mistreatment, such as sexual harassment.

A bystander has a lot of power in supporting a colleague who has been sexually harassed at work. For example, one may decide to report on the instigator or simply help the victim navigate administrative grievance procedures. However, a bystander can also make the situation worse by choosing to blame the victim or ignore the seriousness of the instigator’s behavior.

With more explicit forms of sexual harassment, coworkers are more likely to be supportive towards a victim of sexual harassment, but “it is when sexual harassment is more subtle or perceived as ‘not as bad’ that bystanders might react in ways that are less than helpful for a target,” explains Professor O’Reilly.

How organizations can manage workplace sexual harassment

The first step is to have clear policies in place so all employees know who they can talk to if they experience sexual harassment at work, how the situation will be handled, and what is likely to happen after the organizations starts an investigation.

Unclear sexual harassment policies can become one of the many obstacles preventing women from filing formal complains. Therefore, “at the very least, all of these policies need to be clearly communicated and understood,” advises Professor O’Reilly.

Training programs help inform employees about what types of behaviors are not accepted, but they are not enough. To effectively handle workplace sexual harassment before an incident even happens, organizations should go beyond what is required from them in federal and provincial legislations.

For example, organizations can encourage their leaders to take all forms of sexual harassment seriously. Professor O’Reilly believes that “by supporting and respecting those who have been mistreated in the workplace, exemplary leaders become role models and help set those norms into place.”

Hiring the right person responsible for handling sexual harassment complaints is equally important. Professor O’Reilly advises organizations to look for an individual who “is empathic, caring, and who has zero tolerance to any type of harassment.”

By involving role models in the management and prevention of workplace sexual harassment, organizations are likely to reduce the chances that an employee becomes a target of sexual harassment. But more importantly, such actions will help organizations foster healthier employee interpersonal relationships in general.

© 2020 Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa
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