HR & Management

Signs your workplace is a conducive environment for sexual harassment

4 min read

26 February 2018

Sexual harassment is still prevalent in the modern workplace. But while much emphasis is placed on bolstering the right policies, is there a way bosses can spot whether the workplace itself needs an urgent change?

You could unwittingly be preventing staff from coming forward with their grievances, or breeding an environment that allows for sexual harassment to take place. Talking to Real Business, professor Binna Kandola, senior partner at Pearn Kandola, revealed six signs that should ring warning bells.

According to Kandola, workplace culture is one of the biggest breeders of “bad behaviour”. Men and women don’t seem to see eye-to-eye on what constitutes sexual harassment, so if you haven’t instilled a set of values in the company, made clear in writing, staff will unlikely embody the traits you want them to have.

When those values aren’t clear enough, if staff are incompatible with company “hopes and dreams,” or if management display a “monkey do as told, not do as seen” attitude, among other scenarios, then sometimes unwanted behaviour crops up.

“Workplaces where employees and teams are in competition with one another, where aggression – both verbal and physical – is encouraged,” Kandola explained, “are more likely to foster sexual harassment.”

You, as the boss, can also have an impact on staff behaviour, even if it’s unintentional. Kandola told Real Business: “The kind of boss who is most likely to let sexual harassment slide is someone with very stereotypical and traditional views about the roles of men and women, and who allows sexist comments, dismissing them as merely ‘banter’.”

If you worry more about results, and not how they are achieved, you may be preventing staff from coming to you for help. It breeds a culture where people suffer in silence and ill behaviour goes unchecked.

This moves us onto point number three: when complaints are discouraged in the first place. “Harassment is more likely to occur where either no policies exist or where people are discouraged from using them,” Kandola explained. “Some clues to watch out for include a workplace where ‘fun’ is prioritised over ‘respect’ and HR tries to protect the corporation, rather than the employees.”

Likewise, a workplace that punishes those for making complaints is more conducive of sexual harassment. When perpetrators within the office get away with sexual harassment – whether in the form of verbal abuse or something far worse – the workplace is more likely to become toxic.

“It may lead to behaviour where the victim’s work is criticised in front of others in private, or more publicly in team meetings,” Kandola told Real Business. “The offending individual may also take victims off key projects and give them the cold shoulder. This serves two purposes. First, they can claim the victim is making the complaint to deflect attention from poor performance. Second, discrediting the victim in such a way dissuades others from complaining in future.”

The situation becomes trickier if said offender is a senior member of staff. Your management team and the way they behave influence your staff in big ways. When they think they can get away with such behaviour due to the power they wield, then your company becomes less likely to support a junior member of staff making a sexual harassment complaint against them.

Lastly, Kandola warns bosses to be wary of allowing “people to work to a different set of rules. These people not only repeatedly reoffend, but often get away with it consistently because they tend to be seen as irreplaceable. It breeds an environment where those who are rated as just average at their job are more likely to have the rulebook thrown at them.”