How to spot sexual harassment at work – and confront the abuser

80% of women don't report sexual harassment

How to spot sexual harassment at work – and confront the abuser

Last week, the Canadian government announced that all newly elected MPs will be required to undergo harassment training before assuming office. This training will include upskilling on all forms of abuse – from bullying to sexual harassment – in an attempt to stop any and all incidents. The issue of sexual harassment once again plagues Canadian MPs this month, after former MP for Kitchener Centre Raj Saini withdrew from candidacy following allegations that he harassed a female staffer. But harassment isn’t just a governmental issue – it’s endemic in workplaces across the globe.

According to StatCan, 25% of female employees and 17% of male employees experienced inappropriate, sexualized behaviours in their workplaces in 2020. Despite this, one third of women and one quarter of men said their employer has never provided them with any guidance or training on how to deal with harassment. Oftentimes, sexual harassment glides under the surface of a company – with definable instances becoming more and more difficult to pinpoint. As such, it’s one of the most damaging and disturbing of all workplace safety issues.

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HRD spoke to Dr Melanie Peacock, associate professor of HR at Mount Royal University, who revealed how to spot sexual harassment in your workplace – and, most importantly, what to say if you suspect there’s an problem.

“By definition, underlying sexual harassment will not be easy to spot,” Peacock told HRD. “This is why it’s important to be aware of subtle signs and cues. For example, does an employee seem to shut down in meetings or conversations with one particular person?  Does an employee seem to become agitated or nervous around someone? Symptoms of being harassed or being distressed for other reasons (such as mental health issues, relationship concerns or financial troubles) typically do manifest as an employee displaying noticeable changes in behavior. For example, they may become more withdrawn, they may disengage in discussions, or even stop volunteering for projects.”

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Around 80% of women who’ve fallen victim to sexual harassment at work didn’t report it – with a just one percent turning to HR or a union representative. Why? The fear of not being believed coupled with the desire to avoid confrontation is keeping people silent. So, if you suspect one of your team is being sexually harassed – how should you proceed?

“This is such a critical topic, but also a slippery slope,” warned Peacock. “If an employee suspects that someone is being harassed, they have to be extremely careful how they handle the situation. Accusing someone of harassing another employee is a no-no. This, in itself, could be deemed to be harassing behaviour on the part of the accuser. 

“Gentle conversations with someone, if you notice a change in their behaviour, may be the best course. Try saying something like “’I've notice that you haven't been as engaged in conversations during our meetings. If something is troubling you, I hope that you’ll always use the supports the company has available. Talk to your manager. Talk to HR. I don't mean to pry, but I want you to know that I care and am here to support you achieving the best work results.’”

If you’ve been the victim of sexual harassment, try speaking to a professional such as Assaulted Women’s Helpline on 416.863.051 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800.656.HOPE.

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