How HR can help prevent sexual harassment

Just 17% of victims ever make a report

How HR can help prevent sexual harassment

by Katie Williams, partner for Pinsent Masons, and Justine Cooper, head of Brook By Graham APAC for Vario by Pinsent Masons, integrated legal and inclusion services.

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem that sadly affects many people in the workplace – a problem that is difficult but not impossible to tackle. Employers need to foster a culture that positively supports victims and bystanders to speak up.

Despite the rising occurrence of harassment at work, many organisations are still currently taking a traditional approach that is driven by responding to a formal harassment complaint. However, given that roughly only 17% of victims ever make a report, this model is ineffective in preventing harassment occurring.

Employers need to adopt a proactive and holistic approach to ensure a safe, respectful and inclusive workplace for all.

Proactive approach

While the government is making legislative changes, with the introduction of the new Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, these take time to be fully acted upon. In any case, it’s important that companies seek to create programs which go beyond the existing legal requirements on organisations to provide a safe working environment. As a starting point, companies should look to incorporate the recommendations from the [email protected] report published in 2020.

Many people simply are not aware of the extreme prevalence of sexual harassment, particularly in recent years. This was particularly noticeable throughout Australia’s fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces in 2018, announced and conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. It started with the basics of defining what constitutes sexual harassment and shockingly reported that one in three people have experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years.

Holistic approach

To develop respectful and inclusive working cultures, employers should seek to bring values to life. We draw on the principles of change management to drive culture change at these three levels:

  1. Individual level

This includes training of each individual, particularly those who hold senior positions of responsibility, to ensure they demonstrate and live the organisational values that allow them to lead by example. Moreover, they heavily contribute to the workplace atmosphere and thus, show respectful behaviour to create an inclusive culture.

  1. Team level

It is vital that teams have regular training to clearly outline what constitutes harassment and to discredit the many myths of sexual harassment. Furthermore, it is important that teams know how to respond appropriately if they experience or observe harassment.  At this level, continuous reinforcement is necessary as people in teams change. As the organisation progresses everyone should be aligned with its inclusive values.

  1. Organisational level

Companies should ensure that there are effective mechanisms to support victims and bystanders to speak up that are freely available and accessible to all. The [email protected] report made plenty of recommendations about company policies all employees should be aware of. At this level, policies need to be monitored, reported on and constantly evaluated. This is to ensure that policies are being upheld correctly throughout the entire organisation.

Prevention is first and foremost the issue to be tackled in companies and often starts with awareness and a constant reinforcement in order to foster a workplace that is safe and welcoming. Diversity and inclusion specialists can ensure that efficient mechanisms are  available and accessible for anyone. This will help to build confidence and competence in promoting safe working environments for everyone.

As Gretchen Carlson posed at the AHRI IWD event earlier this year: "imagine a culture that celebrates people speaking up. Instead of thinking about how we create a secret chamber where we silence people, and think about we can get rid of them. Flip 180 degrees. We are going to celebrate people who come forward, we are going to celebrate bystanders, recognise the courage this takes."

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