Sexual harassment at the workplace has reached critical levels in the transition towards online work. Online abuse of all types is experienced by over half of those aged under 30, and the rate of abuse experienced at work is steadily growing. The evidence is clear, we need to start a conversation about abuse in the online workplace. Organisations that proactively act against sexual harassment and abuse will be able to thrive in the era of remote working, and will create an environment that values and supports positive working relationships – a key factor in effectiveness and success.
Why it’s important to do more to prevent sexual harassment in your organisation
The impact of abuse on victims is huge
Sexual harassment and assault can have a devastating impact on those who experience it. The experience is traumatic, and can have lasting consequences on both mental as well as physical health. It’s important to know that all forms of abuse, no matter how seemingly minor, can affect every part of someone’s life, making it difficult to maintain areas of life such as work and professional relationships.
With the growing number of people, and particularly women, experiencing some form of sexual harassment every year, many people working in organisations will have personal experience of abuse. If organisations are serious about understanding employee needs and creating positive company culture, experiences of abuse need to be on their radar along with other priorities such as addressing racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. These need to be tackled in a proactive rather than reactive way. Reactive practices such as grievance and disciplinary policies are necessary, but they are only formal solutions that ultimately focus on the needs of the organisation rather than employees. They cannot be a substitute for having a proactive plan for how to tackle sexual harassment and support employees that may be experiencing it.
“My experience of sexual abuse at work impacted me for many years. Because of the lovebombing, and manipulation my abuser used I didn’t see it as rape until later. The cold and calculated way I was treated by my company once I raised a grievance was enough to discourage anyone from taking legal action – not to mention the money I had to spend and ongoing stress I needed to deal with because of what happened. It was obvious to me that they just wanted to intimidate me and sweep everything under the carpet ”
-Personal interview with a survivor of sexual assault
Sexual harassment in the workplace thrives online
The recent shift towards remote working has impacted organisations in a large number of ways, which requires business leaders to take a close look at newly emerging challenges in employee wellbeing. Online sexual harassment in work settings is on the rise in this more fractured working environment. While women have experienced a massive increasive in sexual harassment and assault in general over the past few years, it is especially prevalent online. Up to 40% of all employees, and 63% of those under 30 have experienced harassment and bullying online, which means that in all likelihood this is a problem that affects close to, if not more than one in every two people working online.
Private or anonymous messages, interactions over online calls, and easily accessible personal social media accounts are all places where sexual harassment can and does occur daily. The ease of connecting to others online means that online stalkers and abusers are almost impossible to escape. What’s more, online work interactions are often held with little oversight from other colleagues. Abusers thrive in these environments, because their victims are so easy to target online, and it is so easy for them to get away.
“At the start of last year I was on track to become team supervisor.We hired a new employee to work on my team and he has continuously harassed female employees in online calls (and only when management isn’t present). He makes jokes about rape, and violent threats, often at foreign women that work at our company. They’re all much more junior, and our GM and rest of the senior team are all men. I’ve voiced concerns to the GM more than a few times, and he seems to always pin it down to cultural differences and mentions he will have a conversation with him about professionalism. It’s gotten to the point where my relationship with senior management has deteriorated, and I don’t think I’m going to be getting promoted anytime soon.”
-Personal experience of 27 year old female working at a tech startup
Creating a positive company culture starts with employee wellbeing
Organisations that strive to create a culture that is engaging, growth oriented and empowering must be responsive to human needs. Employees need to feel valued and supported. Sexual harassment and assault at the workplace is a reality that affects millions every year. Addressing it, most importantly, can stop this form of abuse from taking place in your organisation. Furthermore, it can help bolster positive company values and create an environment where employees feel that their wellbeing is a real priority. Companies that support their employees thrive, because engaged teams feel like they are key to creating the success of their organisation together.
“If you’re running a big clinic, or any company really, you need to care about people. After what I experienced it didn’t matter that he eventually left. One of the worst things was that no one from my company reached out even just to ask how I was. I didn’t need them to have a solution ready but it was clear they didn’t care about me as a person just as a worker.”
-Personal experience of 34 year old female working for a private hospital
What changes can organisations make to become proactive in curbing harassment?
Recognise that sexual abuse is a growing crisis in the online workplace
Sexual harassment and assault is a problem that many women experience in work settings across all industries. The past few years have seen an awakening to the fact that blatant, and often violent sexual assault can happen in any setting, sparking a cultural debate and the #MeToo movement.
A necessary milestone for such a cultural wake up call to truly be effective is to recognise that non-violent sexual abuse is just as prevalent, and often times incredibly traumatizing just the same. Besides the fact that online harassment is fast impacting over half of employees, we need to recognise that this abuse happens not only because predatory individuals abound, but because the way in which we see, talk about, and discuss sex and sexual assault is not based in reality.
Acknowledge the social narratives that allow abuse to take place
Rape myths and expectations of what women should be expected to endure colour our behaviour, leading to many people dismissing their own or others’ experiences of sexual assault. For your organisation to prevent online abuse of any kind from occurring, the first step is to acknowledge and understand that every member, their internalised assumptions about boundaries, and the way they behave will shape the reality of how they interact with others. All members of an organisation bring their own family and social norms into workplace relationships, such as how to set relationship boundaries and interact with people in positions of power.
The power dynamics of many organisations reflect the outside world where discriminatory behaviour is alive and well. These unwritten rules exist in the DNA of our social life, whether at home or at the workplace. Sexism is just one example of how unconscious bias against women results in discrimination and abuse.
We would all consciously agree that powerful individuals should not be allowed to abuse others – yet it happens, regularly and right under our noses. Often, such behaviour is dismissed and explained until it is impossible to ignore any further. Time and again, we see examples of how sexual abuse is enabled by our assumptions that lead to concerning behaviour being dismissed. We only need to look to Bill Cosby’s admission to sedating women before having sex with them regularly in the past, allegations against former US president George H.W. Bush touching women in a sexualised way, and a shocking 82 reports of sexual assault made against Harvey Weinstein. The uncomfortable truth we need to come to terms with is that our society is filled with flawed narratives of power, gender and sexual boundaries. Similarly, we cannot assume the social world of our organisations is healthy by default.
Preventing sexual harassment needs to involve probing our own assumptions and changing the automatic ways we behave that may enable abuse to take place. Only then can we go beyond awareness and onto creating a culture where sexual harassment online can be prevented.
Educate and train
The numbers don’t lie. With growing rates of sexual assault, we have a long way to go as a society to understand how to prevent sexual abuse and support those going through it. The majority of women surveyed report not feeling adequately supported by employers after experiencing sexual harassment at work. Almost half of women would not report sexual assault at work to their employer.
The key takeaway is that good intentions are not enough. The status quo cannot change by dictating new rules and expectations. There is a giant gap in knowledge of what sexual assault is, what impact it can have, and how to support those experiencing it which we need to fill to create organisations that adequately tackle this issue.
Education has to start with leadership teams, to develop knowledge which will enable leaders to inspire others’ hearts and minds. Mandates and dictated rules are not enough to achieve real cultural change. There are many facets to this problem where education is needed, from understanding the psychological impact of abuse, through to uncovering social biases that exist in workplace relationships. Leaders need to be willing to tackle the status quo head on. This involves acknowledging that as a leader you may not have all the answers to this problem yet. Sexual harassment in an online work setting is new territory that few are able to navigate, but the leaders that commit time and effort to really how to prevent workplace abuse will go on to build organisations that really support employee wellbeing, and make positive cultural values an everyday reality.
Diagnose the needs of your organisation
To equip your organisation with the right strategy to tackle sexual harassment, you will need to take an honest assessment of the status quo, to understand your company’s needs. It’s important to understand your company culture as seen by employees themselves, to understand how supported they actually feel. You must then take a look at where your ways of working could be improved. The areas where there are siloes, lack of oversight or where communication doesn’t run smoothly are the ones to look out for. Taking a surgically precise view of how your company works and thinks is a key step in understanding how to tackle sexual harassment.
Although sexual harassment and abuse is a sensitive topic, there are ways to address it in a positive and considerate way, just how diversity and inclusion initiatives tackle social inequality.
Take a hard look at hierarchies
An organisation is a smaller-scale society, where wider social dynamics both good and bad exist just the same. Bad bosses abound. Most employees leave jobs due to bad manager relationships. While many managers may unintentionally cause harm, it’s important to review the power hierarchies in your organisation to prevent all types of abuse from occurring – whether intentional or unintentional. A large proportion of workplace abuse happens across levels of hierarchy, between bosses and employees. A relationship where one person controls a second person’s job security, finances, and reputation is one where abuse can happen very easily. Many people who have experienced abuse at work say that at the time they felt unable to say no because of the power their abuser had over them.
There are ways to evolve manager-employee dynamics, and improve processes and ways of working in a way that is positive for your organisation. The goal is to foster positive working relationships that are healthy, empowered and self-aware.
Find necessary organisational changes
Because sexual harassment and assault is a sensitive issue, it may seem like a topic that isn’t appropriate to discuss in a workplace setting. This mindset only prevents positive change. Ignoring the frequent occurrence of sexual harassment does nothing to stop it from occurring. Most organisations will have a grievance and disciplinary policy in place, but this is not enough. These policies allow organisations to react to a complaint and manage a situation after it has already taken place. Not having a proactive plan can harm your company and cause long-term damage when employees feel that they have to leave after experiencing sexual harassment. Some of the necessary changes may involve redefining how teams are structured, how they work, and how HR and employee support functions. It’s also important to understand the impact of sexual abuse, so dealing with or preventing instances of this in a work setting is informed and supportive of the needs of victims. Leadership needs to be involved in this process closely, and be ready to identify gaps in awareness and understanding, to lead others in their organisations in developing knowledge, inspiring them to care, and shaping a new reality together.
Set a goal for what your organisation will do to prevent sexual harassment, and how it will support those who experience it
Statistics show that many people working online will experience sexual harassment or abuse at some point in their working lives. This worrying trend has become a crisis that is going to be important to tackle in the era of remote working. Preventing this from happening in your organisation and supporting those who do experience sexual assault is achievable. It’s useful to ask yourself what sort of place of work you’d like to help build, and let others be a part of. While remote work has posed many challenges for organisations and has changed work life very quickly, it’s also a great opportunity to rethink how things are done and aim to create the best workplace possible. While this requires a good evaluation of the needs of your work environment, and an openness to making changes, it’s a process that you can start working towards today.
De.Trybe can work with your organisation to understand sexual harassment and abuse, and effect the change needed to create a workplace that embodies positive cultural principles. We can work with you to design bespoke training and consultancy packages that will include individual and group executive coaching and trainings. If you are interested to know more, please get in touch with us.