Sexual-harassment complaints are good for business. Seems like a radical statement, but a radical shift is what it will take to move the needle on workplace sexual harassment.
Last week, news broke of the United Nations’ internal staff survey finding. One-third of UN workers reported experiencing sexual harassment at the office or at work events in the past two years. The reported harassment included sexualized jokes, sexualized gestures and unwanted touching. While this story is remarkable because of the global profile of the UN, and its mandate to protect human rights, it is just one of a constant stream of news stories reporting appalling statistics in our post-#metoo world.
Workplace sexual harassment is extremely common – this much is clear. The stories first arose from the entertainment industry, but have since continued across a broad array of industries and professions. Earlier this month, The New York Times published a story about the sexual-harassment and sex-discrimination crisis affecting women in the economics field. Now it is UN staff. Next week, there is sure to be another story.
When sexual harassment takes place at work, and no complaint is made, what happens? Is the problem resolved? Absolutely not. The distress created is bottled up and builds pressure until it finds a way to escape.
As employment lawyers, we meet many women (and some men) who come to us for advice after experiencing sexual harassment at work. Often, they have not made a complaint to their employer. Many experience health difficulties as a result of the incidents, and because of that are either not performing well, or have taken a sick leave. Some are talking to co-workers about what took place, or have heard rumours about similar harassment of others at work. They have called a lawyer, so legal claims may be on their radar. Many are ready to quit. Some want to go to the media.
Poor performance, sick leaves, gossip, employee turnover, lawsuits and negative media are not good for business. A far better alternative is to provide employees with a clear process to bring sexual-harassment complaints forward internally, and to be ready to respond to complaints effectively. This is not easy, but it can be done.
Elements required to encourage employees to make internal complaints include an accessible, respectful workplace policy in writing. The policy should define sexual harassment, with examples that are directly applicable to the specific business and industry. It should also include a reporting mechanism and investigation process, so that employees know how to make a complaint, and what steps will take place if they do. Training on respect in the workplace is also critical, to make clear the company’s expectations, and create awareness about the policies. Most importantly, a cultural shift is needed. This can be approached pro-actively with top down statements and leading by example to demonstrate that sexual harassment has no place at work.
If all of these elements are in place (and even if they are not), an internal complaint of sexual harassment is a prime opportunity for a business to demonstrate its commitment to a harassment-free workplace. If an employee makes an internal complaint, it is a sign that they trust the company to take their complaint seriously, investigate carefully and deal with the matter both respectfully and fairly. When these steps are taken in response to a complaint, the trust is reinforced and there is a positive impact on organizational culture.
Workplace sexual harassment is happening all around us. If it is happening at the UN, no industry is immune. It makes good business sense to get out ahead of the issue, and avoid sexual harassment turning into absenteeism, turnover, lawsuits and PR crises. If you are ready for them, sexual-harassment complaints can be good for business.
Sara Forte is an employment lawyer and founder of Forte Law, based in Surrey, B.C.