Accepted behavioural protocols have changed radically over the past five years. The rise of social campaigns such as #MeToo, which urge victims of historical abuse or harassment to speak out, has forced many powerful individuals and institutions to re-evaluate their behaviour.

As a result, standards and expectations have been drastically adjusted. Much of the change has occurred where we spend most of our lives – in the workplace.

Sexual Harassment in the workplace is not a new concept. But thanks to the enormous awareness around the issue generally, as well as the de-stigmatisation of victims coming forward, it is now a fundamental requirement for businesses to ensure their staff can not only identify behaviour that constitutes sexual harassment, but also work in a culture free from anything that encourages or tolerates it.

As we surge toward the third decade of the 21st century, it’s no longer acceptable for employers to think a generic policy document or statement is enough to educate, prevent and address sexual harassment. Much more is expected nowadays – and it starts with a proper understanding of what sexual harassment actually is.

It can include:

  • An unwelcome sexual advance
  • An unwelcome request for sexual favours
  • Other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature

Distinct examples of behaviour include:

  • Inappropriate touching, staring, and gestures
  • Display or transmission of offensive pictures, remarks or objects
  • Intrusive questions about another person’s private life or appearance
  • Repeated advances of a sexual or personal nature.

The common denominator is the conduct being ‘unwelcome’; in other words not solicited or invited, and that the individual regards as undesirable or offensive.

In all situations where sexual misconduct is alleged, the onus rests with the complainant to establish such behaviour has taken place. But this burden has been eased to some extent by recent decisions, that provide the complainant’s immediate response to the alleged misconduct isn’t necessarily instructive. In other words, if a complainant appears to accept the conduct either by not raising it, or even humouring it, the conduct could still be deemed ‘unwelcome’. This is because many complainants might want to avoid confrontation by defusing an uncomfortable situation in the quickest possible way. This is a very important distinction for employers and employees to understand; as it goes a long way toward explaining why so many acts have gone unreported, and how exposed a business might be subject to a sudden raft of historical complaints.

The best way of preventing sexual harassment is making sure everyone in the business– from top to bottom – is clear on what it constitutes. Again, a policy document or statement is not enough. To achieve a consistent level of understanding, staff need to be trained face-to-face and, ideally, be faced with hypothetical scenarios that help them learn and identify hazardous situations.

Employers are well advised to take a further step when it comes to preventing such behaviour. It’s prudent to reevaluate the workplace and identify anything – explicit posters, a culture of sexually suggestive jokes – that creates an atmosphere of permissiveness. This is especially crucial for smaller businesses, where it can be more difficult for victims to speak out.

If you believe your business needs advice to proactively address sexual harassment in the workplace, our experts can assist. Equally, if you have identified a current sexual harassment issue in your workplace, we can also help to provide the most considerate and thorough response.