Sexual harassment complaints have become a virtual tsunami – knocking many men from powerful positions. What’s going on? Why are “victims” (both male and female) coming forward now about things that happened, in some cases, years ago?
First, it is important to understand what constitutes sexual harassment – it is repeated behavior of a sexual nature that is offensive to the person who is subjected to the behavior against their will, usually in the workplace or another environment where the alleged harasser has some power over the person subjected to the offensive behavior.
“Behavior of a sexual nature” includes inappropriate jokes or comments. A single occurrence of intentionally touching “private” areas of the body or making demands for sexual favors is generally offensive enough to be considered sexual harassment.
The current increase in sexual harassment complaints is a result of people speaking up about behavior that, in the past, had to be tolerated in order to get or keep a job. Greater public awareness and support has given them the courage to speak up and demand change.
Second, what are the lessons that can be learned from this heightened awareness and public venting of sexual harassment complaints? Although the allegations that are making headlines right now focus on people in large companies, elected officials or celebrities, anyone (including women) can be accused of “inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature” in the workplace.
Lessons Learned from #MeToo (social media movement to report and denounce sexual assault and harassment):
1) Small business owners, managers and supervisors need to check their own behavior to make sure that they treat all employees with respect and do not use the power of their organizational position to behave in inappropriate ways.
2) Employees need to take responsibility for speaking up when they experience behavior that makes them uncomfortable. Simply saying “that’s not funny” or “please, don’t do that” is enough to stop most unintentional behavior; and, if someone says something like this to you – APOLOGIZE AND CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR!
3) Women, who are most frequently the victims of harassment, need to also make sure that their own workplace behavior is appropriate. Women who tell risqué jokes, make suggestive comments, use profanity or dress provocatively may be unintentionally sending the message that this type of behavior is acceptable. (To be clear, it is NEVER ok to sexually harass someone because of how they dress or behave.)
An HR professional can help you write policies and procedures, provide training and conduct investigations of allegations. (Note: anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies should also include many other protected characteristics in today’s business climate.)