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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace September 15, 2011

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.

Claire is the only woman working in a sales team of 10. The team is considered successful with sales figures exceeding targets each month. Its a friendly team with jokes and banter shared amongst the group.

Claire feels uncomfortable about some of the behaviour some men portray – in particular the sexist comments made about female staff members from other departments. The comments are often derogatory – “She could do with losing weight, she has big tits, her bum looks big today, I wonder what she is like in bed”. The staff members are not aware of these comments made of them.

Although the team treat Claire with courtesy, she feels extremely awkward when some of the men would gather around a desk making sexist comments of the images in FHM and other men’s magazines. They would often invite her to partake in these discussions. Some of the men have images ofJordansemi naked as a screen saver.

Claire loves her job, especially interacting with the customers and her sales figures are in the top three. She has excellent rapport with the team, however feels she is treated as ‘one of the lads’. She is often introduced as one of the top three ‘Salesmen’ in our team. Claire resents that the men do not recognise her gender.

Her manager feels she is taking this too personally as the men do enjoy working with her.

A survey conducted  by insurance firm Hiscox suggests that staff laugh at sexist and racist jokes, and think nothing of participating in sexual banter. A poll of almost 800 managers and staff revealed an ‘alarming disregard’ for office behaviour. Hiscox said its study found that two-thirds of workers swear while more than one in three laughs at sexual innuendo, or regularly hears jokes of a racist or sexist nature.

Even though most organisations have policies, and lets say Hiscox report is even partially correct, there would seem to be a big gap between having these carefully consulted policies and implementing into practice.

Unacceptable behaviour in the workplace is only likely to be stopped if staff  clearly believe that such conduct will be punished. No employer would hesitate to take steps against an employee who took money from the till.

Fundamentally should there be a difference in organisations taking action between an employee exposing their employer to financial risk to potentially causing undue distress to their colleagues?

Points for consideration:

  • Inappropriate  workplace banter may expose employers to liability for harassment.
  • Liability may arise under the various forms of anti-discrimination legislation and the Protection from Harassment Act.
  • Prevention requires not just the existence of Dignity at  Work polices but a clearly expressed intent to enforce them.
  • Employers that become liable for acts of harassment may consider passing on the liability to the worker for whose acts they have been found liable.

‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

 Maya Angelou

“To behave with dignity is nothing less than to allow others to freely be themselves”
Sol Chaneles



1. Maree Lotstra - September 18, 2011

In Claire’s case being “one of the lads” is a double edged sword, she is successful and the guys like working with her. Even though she says she is treated with courtesy, is there respect? The real truth that needs to be discovered is in the discussions yet to be started – do they feel like they are showing respect by not making gender an issue, i.e. is Claire’s gender irrelevant to her success.

Are they aware of how Claire feels or has her outward reaction given them “permission” to treat her as one of the lads? I am not talking about the type of permission where a person assaults another believing they were given the green light. I am referring to the small signals where we (sometimes unknowlingly) develop the team values and dynamics that become the unique characteristics for that team. We push buttons on people around us to find the boundaries or rules that define the relationship. Or was the group already so well established that new team members just try to fit in?

Unfortunately the guys are also trapped in their paradigm and may not realise the impact on Claire – sometimes you have to say “stop” and educate through discussion and behaviour. I have found that individual members of a group can be in agreement with the views such as those expressed by Claire but don’t want to stand out/up themselves. People put on their various masks to feel included whether at work, socially or at home, it does not mean it is a comfortable fit.

We should expect an organisation to protect employees by providing a safe workplace – safety is not just about wearing a helmet or safety shoes or the physical environment, it is also about the psychological environment. However, there is an individual responsibility that must be considered in addition to the organisational charter to provide the right environment.

If the organisation does everything it can to, within reason, then there should be consideration for the liabilities to be passed on to the employees who refuse to comply. However this also means that the organisation needs to be honest about how consistent and vigilant it is and communicate this well. There is no point in punishing an employee if they are witnessing (unpunished or condoned) inappropriate behaviour in the leadership team.

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