Sexual harassment tipped to rise

by 17 Mar 2009

Despite increased employee awareness regarding what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, lawyers believe a recession could see a spike in the problem – especially in traditional white-collar industries, writes Angela Priestley

Although it’s too early for figures to have been reflected in concrete statistics, Joydeep Hor, managing partner of Harmers Workplace Lawyers, said that he has already noticed an increase in enquires regarding sexu al harassment – particularly from traditional white-collar industries.

Hor said it’s no surprise, because harass ment is merely a symptom of what happens to many businesses and individuals when they are under pressure or there is talk or perception that downsizing or restructuring may occur.

“Quite often you get a category of employ ee who feels they need to make those kinds of claims in order to protect themselves and devi ate the attention away to others,” he said. “Often, they think that by making a complaint they can somehow get a level of insulation from any impacts.”

According to Sian Ryan, an associate in the employment group at Turner Freeman Lawyers, there can also be an increase in gen uine sexual harassment, with perpetrators motivated by fear. “[For example] a woman entering a typically male-dominated industry, or perhaps out of some desire for people to protect their position by ostracising other employees,” she said. “When people are pos sibly fearful about their ongoing employment they may respond in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise.”

Often, said Ryan, it’s a matter of mild forms of misconduct simply getting out of hand – potentially because in a recession, the focus may be elsewhere and inappropriate behaviour can be allowed to fester. “Bad jokes, for exam ple,” she said. “Taunts that, if acted on at the time, probably would have stopped any further conduct developing from that.”

Meanwhile, some victims of sexual harass ment may simply be afraid to speak up out of concern for their job in the current climate, and not wanting to “rock the boat”, Ryan said.

Hor added that it was likely that in a high pressure environment there will also be a spike in legitimate claims of non-sexual forms of harassment, due to managers being required to performance-manage more rigorously than they otherwise would. “That performance manage ment can easily be interpreted as bullying and harassment by employees,” he said.

It’s a problem that Hor said is particularly bad in media and advertising, but can also run rife in professional services organisations and what would typically be called white-collar work. “It’s almost as if in manufacturing and mining, the true blue-collar industries are seeing less of these kind of things, usually because the HR presence in a lot of those organisations is a lot stronger than it is in white-collar environments,” he said.

Ryan advised HR managers to be proactive in dealing with the matter, and said repetition of messages about what constitutes sexual harassment is key to ensuring awareness of the problem remains a priority. “Talk to employees earlier rather than later about the kind of con duct that is simply not acceptable in that kind of environment,” she said. “Simply reminding peo ple of appropriate standards of behaviour can be really effective in bringing those messages to the forefront of employees’ minds,” she said.

And a lack of resources is no excuse: “I don’t think that bad economic times should be an excuse for letting standards slip when it comes to really critical things like discrimination and harassment in the workplace,” said Ryan.


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