Sexual harassment in the workplace: Where do we draw the line?
Cases of sexual harassment in the workplace have been on the rise in recent months. Despite increased awareness, only a few workers know where the line is drawn between casual employee relationships and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Lately, the headlines have been abuzz with numerous sexual harassment scandals such as the case of accomplished Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Oscar actress Lupita Nyong’o in October wrote in the New York Times how Weinstein made sexual advances to her in form of private dinners and massages in order to make her a star.
On November 29 the NBC News fired Today show host Matt Lauer for what its chairman termed “inappropriate sexual behavior.” This is after three women accused the star news anchor of inappropriate sexual contact in instances going back to 2001.
Recently a local publication published a story of Walt Disney’s animation executive John Lasseter, who had to take a leave of absence following numerous complaints from staff about ‘unwanted hugs’ and disrespect of their personal space.
Earlier this year former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a detailed blog post, expressing her disappointment with the HR department for failure to take action against her manager, who had been sexually harassing her since 2016. Her allegations were dismissed by HR, who defended the manager’s behavior on the grounds he is a high performer.
Closer home, there was a major incident at Ushahidi, a pioneer of Kenya’s tech scene, where the board tried to water down rampant sexual harassment. The executive director, who allegedly went on to apologise to his accuser, was later fired following public outrage after the release of an audio clip.
Clearly, sexual harassment in the workplace is a major issue that should be addressed globally. With America leading the way with the #MeToo campaign, there is a lot to be addressed on this subject; we can’t afford to look the other way.
Susan and Lupita’s experiences resonate with what some women are going through in Kenya today.
These incidences prove that sexual harassment is a reality. To effectively address sexual harassment, we must first define it by pointing out what the law says about it.
Article 2 ( 6 ) of the Employment Act states that an employee is sexually harassed if the employer or a representative of the employer or a co-worker, directly or indirectly requests the employee for sexual intercourse, sexual contact or any other form of sexual activity that contains an implied or express promise of preferential treatment in employment. Further, threat of detrimental treatment in employment or threat about the present or future employment status of the employee can also be deemed to be sexual harassment.
Also, if an employer or a representative of the employer or a co-worker uses language, whether written or spoken, of a sexual nature it can be misconstrued as sex harassment.
Whether your company is big or small, there is need to have a HR policy that addresses sexual harassment. Furthermore, if strong leadership is in place, with leaders who lead by example, then sexual harassment will become an issue of the past. Case studies show that high-achieving producers, managers, executive directors, etc, are the main perpetrators of sexual harassment. They set a bad precedence for their staff.
Organisations should also strive to have a support mechanism where employees can bring up personal issues and get fully attended to. Otherwise victims will feel the need to turn to social media or other avenues to air their grievances, which can be suicidal for both the individual and the organisation’s image.
Although well defined in the employment law, sexual harassment is still a grey area. There are some loose ends that should be addressed. This can be achieved through staff sensitisation during training and seminars to shed more light on the sexual harassment law.
To sum it up, sexual harassment is a pervasive issue that requires extra stringent measures to curb.
It is reported that most cases of sexual harassment in the workplace are not reported due to fear, intimidation or the lack of knowledge that one is actually being sexually harassed.
This culture can be changed through knowledge and empowerment through HR policies on sexual harassment that seek to protect the victims and bring to book the culprits.
CEO and managing partner, Corporate Staffing Services Ltd