How to end the normalisation of sexual harassment in the workplace

Do phrases such as "it's just a joke", "I was only asking" or "no one else minds", sound familiar in your workplace?

How to end the normalisation of sexual harassment in the workplace

Do phrases such as “it’s just a joke”, “I was only asking” or “no one else minds”, sound familiar?

These can be warning signs of normalised harassment, in which inappropriate behaviour has become part of the culture and complaints are brushed aside as trivial or over reacting

Marcela Slepica, clinical services director, AccessEAP, said the important thing to focus on here isn’t the intention of the act, but its effects.

She added that the person who feels impacted by the behaviour should not be made to question whether their response is valid.

“These attitudes are dangerous and can reinforce the very behaviour which makes the victim feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the workplace,” said Slepica.

“Highlighting harassment can create anxiety and fears that our colleagues and our career will be detrimentally affected.”

Slepica added that this can also be compounded by our imagination, which can blow our concerns out of proportion

“The first step is to trust your feelings and take a calm collected approach,” said Slepica.

“This is not always easy so take time to think, plan and then respond.”

Slepica offers the following advice to end the normalisation of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Focus on the behaviour
Let the person know that it is their behaviour that is upsetting or concerning. Be careful not to label the person as this can result in them becoming defensive.

Counter their defensiveness by distinguishing the problem from the person, and invite their input in how to address the issue. For example instead of saying ”you’re harassing (person A)” or “you are a bully”, lead with an example such as “when you say X (person A) feels uncomfortable, or they feel bullied”.

Be clear and specific
Anxiety about how someone might react can lead to messages being ‘watered-down’.

We may give a lot of positive feedback in amongst the negative, or we might talk generally to a group about behaviour that bothers us without speaking directly to the person involved.

The risk is that your message will not be heard by them. Say what you sincerely believe needs to be said, even if you know the person you are speaking to may not enjoy hearing it and be sure to phrase it in a way that is respectful towards that person.

Don’t let fear keep you from being courageous
It can be easy to stop ourselves raising concerns by minimising their importance. For example, we may tell ourselves we are ‘just being silly’, we are ‘being too sensitive’ or ‘it’s not such a big deal’.

These thoughts are counterproductive because the fear keeps you from being courageous. If the issue is impacting you or someone else negatively or if there are consequences to not raising the issue, then it’s important. Be clear about the reasons why you are initiating the conversation.

Listening can be the hardest part
This can sometimes be the hard part because people can be defensive or angry after hearing your concerns and feedback.

They may deny that there’s an issue and even convince you it’s ‘all in your head’. Before you launch into your opinion of the situation, listen first, don’t interrupt, explain, justify or defend. There are always two sides to a story and there will be time to respond later.

Respond calmly
Depending on how the person has reacted to your concerns remaining calm can be tricky, however focus on clarifying the factual accuracies of what the person has said. Their feelings are subjective and you can’t change these.

The person may be angry with you for some time. Confidently re-state your concerns, but remember if you start getting upset, call time out. You have to manage your own emotions first before you can respond well to others. You may need some time to think about what each other has said before you come to a resolution or compromise.


Related stories:
Sexual harassment policies a “must-have”
Sexual harassment failure for Human Rights Commission


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