9 March 2018
Roseanna Smith, Graduate Associate
Following the Weinstein scandal and the highly publicised #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, many organisations are asking, what does this mean for my workplace?
It is a fairly accurate observation to make that there has been a rise in workplace sexual harassment complaints since various scandals have been exposed. This isn’t a coincidence. People are now feeling more empowered to call out sexual harassment, and other unacceptable behaviour in the workplace, and to recount experiences that may have occurred some time ago that they feel should be aired publicly.
The conduct that is coming to light in organisations is not necessarily new, although social media has provided new avenues to engage in such behaviour. It is often behaviour that was once accepted as a workplace norm, ignored or even concealed.
In a workplace setting there is enormous diversity of human interactions and relationships, and an organisation cannot control every aspect of its employees conduct in this regard. However, organisations can and must explain and detail what acceptable conduct in their workplace looks like, and need to be clear and unambiguous in their messaging with respect to sexual harassment. In addition, the behavioural standard that organisations set, and an organisation’s reaction to behaviour that falls outside of this standard, must not create a workplace culture that tolerates or perpetrates sexual harassment.
Our observation is that workplace policies and education on workplace harassment are largely inadequate because they tend to stick to the black and white issues. The majority of workplace policies and employee induction sessions only cover the obvious, that is, what is already fairly well known to be right and wrong. Few organisations step up to the challenge of dealing with the more nuanced behaviour or the “grey” areas.
The “grey” areas concern the conduct that, in the extreme, to one person may constitute outright harassment but to another is acceptable behaviour. For example, the banter that occurs in many workplaces, nicknames between co-workers, and the language used around the lunch table are all examples of everyday areas where organisations need to refocus and reassess their approach.
It is the responsibility of an organisation to develop and foster the culture they envision for their workplace. This may mean having somewhat awkward conversations, for example, around initiating and developing romantic relationships with coworkers. There is no doubt that consensual relationships in the workplace exist, as 52% of workers have developed a romantic relationship with a co-worker.1 Recent events in parliamentary circles have raised the question of whether organisations should ban relationships that involve at least the perception of a power imbalance.
Interestingly, as a result of the recent exposure of sexual harassment claims against prominent public figures, more than one in four workers reported that they now less likely to think it is acceptable to engage in romantic relationships with office colleagues.2
The positive duty of an organisation to provide a healthy and safe workplace free from sexual harassment includes a culture that does not ignore information about sexual harassment that is brought forward explicitly by a complainant, or gleaned from gossip in the workplace. Changing the workplace culture around sexual harassment goes further than adopting prescriptive policies, as real difference comes from an organisation’s commitment to change. The consequences of engaging in harassment in the workplace must be feared more than the risk of speaking out. In the current climate, the starting point for organisations is to reassess the way they have handled previous complaints and question why people in their workplace are only starting to come forward now.
Our perceptions around workplace harassment will continue to shift, depending on the changing social and cultural expectations. Organisations need to be at the forefront of this so they are not on the back foot when a harassment claim is lodged. If there is a silver lining to the Weinstein scandal, it is the insight that organisations now have that prevention through culture change is a better option for creating a healthy and safe work environment.