Blog: What's sexual harassment really?

Strategic HR

What's sexual harassment really?

As an HR Manager, “Sexual Harassment” is one of those phrases that makes you close your eyes, breathe deeply and wonder where the sudden migraine came from. One of most sensitive charges, it seems to lurk eternally somewhere just under the surface in an office setting, yet it is one of the hardest accusations to prove.
What's sexual harassment really?

As an HR Manager, “Sexual Harassment” is one of those phrases that makes you close your eyes, breathe deeply and wonder where the sudden migraine came from. One of most sensitive charges, it seems to lurk eternally somewhere just under the surface in an office setting, yet it is one of the hardest accusations to prove.

I was going through this post on the evil hr lady and what I think is that while some actions are blatant and can be easily tagged as harassment, there is so much grey area and things can often be subjective.


What about the guy who casts an appreciative look at the new girl from purchasing in her “dress down Friday” skin tight jeans? Is this considered harassment, or should she be criticized for not dressing more appropriately? Should he be drug down to HR and lashed, or pulled to the side for a quick non-official reprimand?

I think that many in the HR field would say it depends on the perception of the event by the recipient. But judging by the data from The Society for Human Resources Management, sexual harassment is a major issue for companies. They report that 97 per cent of companies have a documented sexual harassment policy, and a whopping 62 per cent have instituted sexual harassment prevention training.


This may seem very responsible at first glance, but to me it begs the question—why has this become such a big issue? I think in the new millennium, the lines of propriety have been blurred so much so, that many people are not sure just what’s allowed anymore. Add to that the over-hyped sexuality of television dramas which are rife with workplace romance and the scene is ripe for trouble.


When investigating sexual harassment claims, some are very legitimate and unprovoked. However, my “unscientific” observations have also noted the following reasons that people end up in HR for harassment:


The parties involved had a consensual relationship, often casual, but sometimes long-term. The problem is that things have now soured and the relationship has gone south. Unfortunately as things crash and burn, one individual may not feel like letting go. This is made so much worse if they maintain close proximity at work.


Cultural or religious differences in what is appropriate can also be a common cause of sexual harassment complaints. Some people may feel it impolite not to touch someone when speaking to them, while another person feels it violates personal boundaries.


The Office Party gone bad. This is a tough one. Often the company will host a meeting, conference, or party at which drinks are served after five. While a popular practice, mixing stressed out execs with booze may not be the wisest choice. If people under the influence decide to “hook up”, they will often be embarrassed about their behavior the next day. But if one of them thinks that they have been given free license going forward, this could spell trouble for work relations.


Another interesting factor is that the number of men filing claims of sexual harassment is steadily on the rise. This can be attributed to the increase of females in power roles, but know that in only 59% of cases was the accused a woman. Men complaining of sexual harassment from other men make up 41% of all cases brought by males.


Other interesting statistics found at Sexual harassment Support include:

1. 31 per cent of the female workers reported they had been harassed at work
2. 7 per cent of the male workers reported they had been harassed at work
3. 62 per cent of targets took no action
4. 100 per cent of women reported the harasser was a man
5. 59 per cent of men reported the harasser was a woman
6. 41 per cent of men reported the harasser was another man


Of the women who had been harassed:

1. 43 per cent were harassed by a supervisor
2. 27 per cent were harassed by an employee senior to them
3. 19 per cent were harassed by a coworker at their level
4. 8 per cent were harassed by a junior employee


The most alarming of the statistics above are the ones that state that 62% took no action and a combined 70% were harassed by a supervisor or senior employee. These are alarming numbers and we as HR professionals really should dialogue on how to combat this issue.


So what are your thoughts? Do you agree with my “unscientific observations” about the cause of some harassment claims? Also, how do we combat executives preying on subordinates and encourage those who have been harassed to come forward?


Let’s talk.

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Topics: Strategic HR, C-Suite, Employee Relations

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