Company Culture
12 min read

What is sexual harassment in the workplace?


Kate Le Gallez

Writer, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 12 minutes

In recent years a number of high-profile stories of pervasive workplace sexual harassment at “leading” companies has been exposed. These stories might dominate the headlines for a while, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The UN reports that 40-50% of women in EU countries and 30-40% of women in Asia-Pacific countries experience some form of workplace sexual harassment. In the US, a YouGov survey found 30% of women have been sexually harassed.

Women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual harassment and so most of the stats we see relate to their experience. However, the limited data that’s available suggests LGBTQ people and people of color are also disproportionately affected. A smaller percentage of men are also harassed by women or other men.

While the victim’s experience of sexual harassment can range from uncomfortable to devastating, in the workplace there are also ramifications for the wider organization. The relationship between culture and workplace sexual harassment is complicated, but with 98% of US organizations reportedly having sexual harassment policies in place, something is clearly awry in how culture is espoused versus how it’s experienced.

We need to talk about why this is the case.

Because workplace sexual harassment claims are often settled behind closed doors, there’s little opportunity to understand and learn from what’s happened. Even if details are shared, people tend to focus more on the salacious detail than any lessons that can be learnt.

Privacy is essential, but organizations need to start having the tough conversations that can make change happen. We want to help start these conversations, so we’ve partnered with Nathan Luker from Your Call, a whistleblowing service provider, to deliver a comprehensive overview of workplace sexual harassment.

We’ll cover the following questions here:

  • What is workplace sexual harassment?
  • Why don’t people report workplace sexual harassment?

In other articles we address:

The importance of defining workplace sexual harassment

Before we even get to the definition itself, we wanted to start with why it’s important to have a shared understanding of what sexual harassment is.

Even when a definition is set out in black and white, cultural biases – particularly those stemming from a traditional view of the workplace as male-centric – can still impact how people interpret its meaning.

The Harvard Business Review tested this idea by asking a small group of individuals to read and then discuss a sexual harassment policy. They found that even though the policy clearly focused on specific behaviors of sexual harassment, the participants overwhelmingly felt that the policy focused on perceptions of those behaviors and therefore found it threatening. The participants believed it could cover any ‘innocent’ behavior by one employee (typically a heterosexual male) if an irrational person (typically a heterosexual female) perceived it to be harassment.

From a reporting perspective, being clear on the content of ‘sexual harassment’ can actually change how women self-report their experiences. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission examined the findings of a range of surveys and found that when a survey specifically asked respondents whether they had experienced particular behaviors, like unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, rather than simply asking about ‘sexual harassment’, the level of reported harassment increased. In short, even women experiencing these behaviors as uncomfortable or offensive don’t necessarily label them as sexual harassment.

The point of these examples is that even when we think we’re on the same page, we’re often not. And this divergence can have major consequences culturally and individually.

Defining workplace sexual harassment

The definition of sexual harassment in the workplace is the same as the definition for sexual harassment anywhere. The following definition is from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), but very similar wording is found in the US, UK and EU:

An unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which a reasonable person would anticipate would cause a person to feel offended, humiliated or intimidated constitutes sexual harassment.

To really understand what the definition covers, we need to look more specifically at the types of behaviors covered. The AHRC gives these examples:

  • unwelcome touching
  • staring or leering
  • sexually explicit pictures or posters
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates
  • requests for sex
  • intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person
  • insults or taunts based on sex
  • sexually explicit physical contact
  • sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages

These are just examples and they all look incontrovertible on the page. Other behaviors that still amount to workplace sexual harassment can be less obvious, perhaps delivered in a more subtle way. In these situations, perpetrators may excuse their behavior as flattering or flirtatious, while victims worry they’re rocking the boat unnecessarily. The fact is, if the behavior of a sexual nature reasonably makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, then it’s sexual harassment.

Workplace sexual harassment laws tie these behaviors to the employment context – which generally means every employment situation and relationship. The prohibition covers not only behavior in the workplace itself, but also work-related activities (e.g. conferences and parties) and basically all the interactions between people who work together.

The environment itself can also amount to unlawful sexual harassment where it’s sexually permeated or hostile. This could include a workplace where pornographic materials are displayed, or a culture where offensive jokes, sexual banter and crude conversations are the norm.

Who’s responsible?

The person who sexually harasses someone is responsible for the harassment, but employers can also be held responsible for the actions of employees. Having policies and procedures to create a harassment-free environment, and make reporting effective will help limit an employer’s liability, and can help reduce incidents.

Many (up to 80%) of sexual harassment incidents go unreported and some of the cultural and contextual factors that might be to blame. Next, we explore why people don’t report workplace sexual harassment.

Why don’t people report workplace sexual harassment?

Luker says some of the reasons victims of workplace sexual harassment so often decide not to make a formal report are a lack of support and protection. “People may not feel comfortable speaking up when there’s a lack of robust policies, procedural rigor or reporting frameworks. Also, when there’s a perceived or actual lack of consequences, lack of commitment from leaders or the feeling the perpetrator won’t get caught because there won’t be a thorough investigation, people don’t feel safe reporting wrongdoing,” he says.

Susan Fowler’s blog post detailing the sexual harassment she experienced at Uber was remarkable for many reasons. Among them was her cool recitation of the unacceptable actions of her manager and her meticulous account of how both HR and upper management actively ignored her complaints and instead turned on her. But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that Fowler spoke up at all – first internally and then externally.

2012 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reported that only 20% of respondents who experienced sexual harassment actually made a formal complaint. A YouGov survey reported similar figures in the US.

Luker and the Your Call team have also seen people be held back by feelings of personal guilt about the incident, feelings that they somehow caused or contributed to the behavior of the perpetrator. This response is troubling and speaks to how sexual harassment continues to be viewed in wider society. However, it’s not something that we’ll be focusing on in this blog.

Here, we’ll look at how a lack of protection and lack of support in the workplace, underpinned by culture, can impact the decision to speak up.

Lack of protection

When we talk about lack of protection, we’re really talking about a lack of formal policies and procedures in place to protect victims of sexual harassment. How these frameworks are actually practiced is a very different question and something we’ll discuss more below.

The vast majority of organizations (around 98%) do have sexual harassment policies in place, however, smaller businesses and startups can lag in setting up appropriate protections.

Often, the focus is elsewhere in the early years of a business. “For a fast-growing or early-stage business, the focus is usually on scale, hitting targets and creating fun physical working environments to attract top talent. These elements are important, and contribute to culture and performance, however leaders need to be careful robust policies and procedures don’t get overlooked,” says Luker.

There’s really no excuse for not having the frameworks in place – being able to be safe at work, free from sexual harassment is a basic human right. There’s plenty of guidance out there on how to establish appropriate frameworks, including from the Australian Human Rights Commission and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Lack of support

Even when formal policies and procedures are in place, Fowler’s story shows this isn’t enough, which Luker confirms with his own experience. “Despite formal policies being present, in reality there may be a lack of support for individuals, information may not be handled appropriately to ensure confidentiality and proper protections may not be afforded,” he says.

“Individuals who choose to speak up need to feel confident they’ll be protected and supported, that their career path won’t be jeopardized and they’ll avoid any retaliation or victimization.”

A lack of support can impact individuals in different and complex ways. As Luker explains in an example leading an organization to contact Your Call, “One woman who was continually propositioned in the workplace was surprised by the behavior and inaction of management after reporting the incident. As the perpetrator was a team leader, the individual didn’t feel comfortable reporting the incidents internally. There was no support system or anonymous external avenue to speak up.”

In addition to the lack of support at work, she was wary of the impact of speaking out on her loved ones. “This fear about how she’d be perceived in her personal life and the fear of speaking up internally could have been remedied with support mechanisms like an Employee Assistance Program and adequate reporting pathways,” Luker says.

One reason for this may be that leaders in fast-growth organizations, including the CEO/founder, may not have been trained to handle misconduct. Depending on what stage the organization is at, the HR function may also not be fully developed and may lack the expertise to deal with sensitive incidents.

“CEOs/founders of early-stage businesses may not have been exposed to misconduct in the past. So they often haven’t had the opportunity to build the skills necessary to adequately receive a complaint, impartially assess the facts, apply procedural fairness and conduct an investigation. When mixed with an incomplete HR function, this can reduce the number of proactive measures in place to detect inappropriate workplace behavior, increasing their personal liability and the organization’s commercial and reputational risk,” says Luker.

The challenges of scaling a business or moving between similar size/type organizations can also come into play, explains Luker. “A CEO/founder may go through a five-year period not needing to deal with an incident, and this can lead to complacency. Then, all of a sudden, there’s an allegation and they don’t have the ability to adequately respond, potentially leading to serious repercussions.”

Because of this, it’s important to go beyond simply putting paper-based policies and procedures in place. The rights and philosophies that those frameworks set out need to be lived so that individuals feel like they have the support to come forward and that their allegations will be taken seriously.

This may involve formal training for both leaders and employees alike to make sure there’s a common understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace and how reports should be handled. But it’s also very much a cultural issue, especially when a claim clashes with other dominant aspects of the culture, like high performance.

The role of culture

The issue of culture was right at the heart of Fowler’s blog post. While policies and procedures were in place at Uber, the behavior of both HR and management, and in particular, the apparent priority given to ‘high-performing’ perpetrators, revealed how a toxic culture quickly overrides what’s on paper.

Just like support, culture’s impact is complex. There’s the internal culture to consider, but layered on top of this is the external culture which has historically preferenced men (usually white) over women and other minority groups. We’ll focus on internal culture here, but the impact of the external environment can’t be ignored.

It starts at the top. “The leadership aspect is critical,” says Luker. “If leaders aren’t walking the talk, whether explicitly or implicitly, they’re not demonstrating commitment to the organization’s values and approach to wrongdoing. This can corrode an individual’s trust and can make sexual harassment go unreported.”

Culture Amp CEO Didier Elzinga emphasizes how culture is often built on the little things. “Throwaway comments like a senior male partner saying to a junior male: ‘when you have kids, the office is your friend’ set up particular expectations and a view of how you run your life,” he says.

“The worst things are the systemic comments and behaviors, where you think, ‘well, it’s actually not surprising that it happened’, because all the way along things are setup to create that type of behavior. That’s the stuff an organization has to focus on, the stuff you have to fix,” says Elzinga.

For companies in the start-up and scaling phases, this can be a real challenge, especially as a ‘win at all costs’ mentality can start to dominate. “The challenge for a lot of companies is that at some point they have to sit down and go, ‘what do we care about more than just winning, and what will we be willing to lose?’

“It’s through thoughtfully answering that question that I think you end up building bigger, more sustainable, longer-term companies, because you’ve actually found something that gives the organization purpose beyond just winning. It’s not that you’re not going to win. You still want to win, but it’s about saying ‘if we can’t win on that basis, we won’t win’,” says Elzinga.


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