Culture the key to tackling sexual harassment in the workplace

Culture plays a vital role in tackling sexual harassment in the workplace

Culture the key to tackling sexual harassment in the workplace

A wave of anger and disillusionment on the part of women about sexual violence, misogyny and harassment has been unleashed in recent weeks. Although these issues have deep tentacles in broad societal norms and values, it is worth examining how to best eliminate from the workplace the kinds of behaviour that make women (and some men) feel belittled, unsafe, devalued and objectified.

After all, if we can get it right at work, where employers and employees are bound by additional obligations and regulations, that must assist in getting it right outside of work. But there is no silver bullet.

The laws are in place already so, in my view, this is not an area where legislative reform is the fix (although, of course, there are many suggestions in the Respect@Work Report that need to be considered). Given the rules exist that were designed specifically to stamp out discrimination, bullying and harassment in the workplace, why aren’t they being adhered to?

On paper, they are. The crux of the issue lies in workplace culture. Having training and policies in place that tick the compliance box, yet staff still don’t believe that they will be enforced or gain any real understanding of expectations from the training.

Having a whistleblower service and grievance procedure in place can operate in one of two ways. The first is where no one feels safe making a complaint and the second is where a culture of complaint has developed such that these services act as a post box for myriad grievances, few of which should be subject to any formal resolution procedure and many of which could be more productively resolved through a simple, respectful conversation between peers.

Read more: Why employers need to engage in FWC proceedings

What is the common failing here? It is all down to culture. Culture in a workplace means having behaviours that are accepted as the norm by all – a collective responsibility. This workplace environment implicitly refuses to accept unacceptable forms of interaction between colleagues. None of your policies or complaints procedure will work in the absence of a respectful culture.

Here’s an example: Alex has just started in an organisation and at the end of the first week, drinks are held at work to welcome him to the team. After a couple of drinks, Alex tells his colleagues how “hot” he thinks Sue in marketing is and asks his team who they think is the hottest in the office. In scenario 1, the team either awkwardly offers a suggestion of a hot colleague, escape to the bar to avoid contributing or simply look at their drinks and try and change the subject when it is their turn.

On Monday, one of the team makes a complaint to HR and a formal investigation begins. Three weeks later that is completed, and Alex gets a formal warning. In the meantime, at least two of the team wonder whether comments like that are made when they are not at work and feel uncomfortable about ever working with Alex. Not exactly a great outcome even though the behaviour was called out and an HR Manager was kept occupied for many hours.

In scenario 2, where a robust culture exists, the immediate reaction when Alex opens his mouth is that Peter says, “Don’t be an idiot Alex, save that stuff for outside of work, Sue is a legend and that is not the way we roll around here”. Immediately two things happen: firstly, Alex is told at the outset that this type of conversation/observation is not tolerated within the team and gets the chance to pull his socks up.

Most importantly, all those in the team listening immediately feel safe. No awkward smiles, no avoiding eye contact, just a safe environment where they know that sexism and objectification will not be accepted.

Scenario 2 is what we want in a workplace, not a sole reliance on formal processes. Formalities are necessary and appropriate in some circumstances but not all and should not be the only option. The hard part is achieving the culture that enables scenario 2. Regular bystander training is a key part of doing so. This is focusing on our role as bystanders giving everyone a part in changing culture and creating acceptable norms of behaviour.

Read more: Can casuals request to become permanent employees?

Another key step is to rethink aspects of the support provided to employees to assist them with handling conflict and inappropriate behaviour at work. Employees need to be supported and trained, in many cases, to confront and manage conflict themselves, always feeling supported by their employer. Whistleblower services do not do that and nor do grievance procedures but workplace ombuds do.

Changing the culture of an organisation by making poor behaviour an aberration means that when it does happen, bystanders will be more likely to call it out. Providing alternate means of supporting and enabling employees to call out behaviour, either against themselves or others, will reduce fear.

Time and time again in our work complaints are made only after harassment has continued for some time. When that happens, an investigation ends up with no winners and the damage to the organisation is difficult to repair. Addressing why it happened, how it continued to happen and why nothing was said are the key issues to history not repeating itself. This is not simple but is the key to success.

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