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If you ask 10 people to define what sexual harassment is, you will get 10 different answers. Despite high profile cases and #MeToo, there remains confusion about what it actually is. The perception of where the boundaries lie are often blurred, especially in the workplace.

While the fundamentals are easy enough to get to grips with, make no mistake, it can be so nuanced it appears hard to understand. For instance, if someone is being harassed by a manager, a dangerous power play comes into force that makes the situation far more challenging. A seemingly ‘innocent’ gesture towards someone junior: compliments about their appearance, resting a hand on their shoulder while they are seated at their desk, or playful questions about their personal life will make the recipient feel their career prospects are in jeopardy.

Recipients rarely complain. Often, they have no faith their complaint will be taken seriously. However, the effect on mental wellbeing cannot be understated. Workplace sexual misconduct can lead to anxiety and depression. Corporate reputational damage and inhouse mistrust proliferate, none of which help a company thrive. Absenteeism rises. All of this carries financial implications.

It is not exclusively women that get harassed. In environments where men are heavily outnumbered, women can jointly inflict hideous, inappropriate behaviour on male colleagues.

What’s the answer? Let’s begin by accepting it is not the place of anyone to modify their appearance so they do not get harassed. Or stay quiet and tolerate it. Everyone has the right to feel safe.

Next – men and women, senior and junior, LGBTQ+ – take ownership of the problem. With education, understanding and empathy every person can recognise why people harass and why others tolerate it.

It sounds complex, but the principles are incredibly straightforward. Companies need to lead inclusively from the CEO to the shop floor, all operating with zero tolerance on sexual misconduct. Everyone is responsible and everyone is accountable, but it begins with education and above all, empathy.

When the conversation starts around sexual harassment, you can guarantee that every single woman in the room has experienced it. Empathy kicks in with the realisation that colleagues most probably have endured many levels of harassment from sexual assault to street harassment. Not everyone feels they can talk about their experiences, but they now have people acknowledging how crushingly commonplace and awful harassment is. That is game changing.

This problem is solvable. With everyone on the same page, implementing transparent and fair anti-sexual harassment policies creates corporate trust. Employees must have the confidence to report problems. We realised long ago that most companies have the will to eradicate it, but don’t have resolution procedures in place that are fit for purpose. Once they are buttoned down, things can really start to shift, and when that happens, societal progress will have been improved.

What is sexual harassment? What does the law say? What are your company policies? UNDERSTANDING At an intellectual and emotional level, realising that nobody is ever responsible for being harassed, regardless of their clothing, age, race or gender. EMPATHY:
Caring about your colleagues and then wanting to be part of the solution.
For instance, comprehending that a flattering comment about someone’s physique or appearance is often not taken as ‘a compliment’. It is harassment.
Your company and all your colleagues have zero tolerance for sexual harassment and misconduct. You can call it out without fear of retribution. You can report it. Your company will deal with it openly, firmly and fairly.

◗ Dermot Dennehy and Melanie Barren are the Directors of Heard Solutions. Heard Solutions specialise in enhancing culture, training and providing reporting solutions. Contact Dermot on 07788 417419 or 

[Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash]

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