Redefining Sexual Harassment in the Age of #MeToo

Daniel Thomas

Originally appeared in NAVEX Global’s “Tackling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” market report.


The #MeToo movement dates back to a 2006 Myspace campaign, but was propelled into the public vocabulary across the globe following the 2017 Harvey Weinstein scandal. The movement ignited a much-needed public discussion about the pervasive and sinister nature of workplace sexual misconduct. But despite the many public revelations and consequences that ensued for the accused, there is much more to be done to stop powerful men abusing their positions in the workplace.

Many violations have been swept under the rug. But with the #MeToo movement in ascendancy, organisations have realised they must change

While some forms of harassment are unambiguously condemned in the modern workplace, sexual harassment has too often been talked about in terms of ‘grey areas’. Abuse has been dismissed as part of a wider culture of sexism. Many violations have been swept under the rug. But with the #MeToo movement in ascendancy, organisations have realised they must change.

Law Versus Culture

According to Samantha Mangwana, a partner at law firm CM Murray, the legal definition of sexual harassment is perfectly clear in most countries. In the UK, under the 2010 Equalities Act, it is “unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

“Conduct can include verbal comments or physical actions including touching, standing in close proximity or putting sexualised images up in the office,” she says. It is not the law that has changed, she adds, it is public opinion. People are finally waking up to the scale of the problem and the long-overdue need to take action.

Download Market Report: Tackling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The law might be clear about what harassment means. But there are cultural disagreements over the definition and how the problem should be tackled, and this is something compliance teams need to address.

In France, the #PasMoi movement that sprang up in response to #MeToo highlighted this tension. In early 2018, 100 prominent French women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, published an open letter in Le Monde stating that complaints about men’s behaviour had gone too far and become “puritanical”. “Rape is a crime,” they wrote. “But trying to seduce someone, even awkwardly, is not. Nor is gallantry a form of macho aggression.”

HR managers acknowledge there can be grey areas with regards to harassment that leave room for interpretation. However, Kerry McGowan, director at consultancy The HR Specialists, suggests this is a poor excuse for not tackling the issue.

“In terms of grey areas, employees need to understand it doesn’t matter what the person accused of the discrimination thinks,” she says. “[Under law,] it’s how it is perceived by others.

“Therefore, if there is any doubt in a person’s mind that they might be upsetting someone then they should stop. If they are unable to see this for themselves, then if a manager or someone asks them to stop informally they should stop their actions immediately. Otherwise, formal actions will be taken.”

Ingrid Fredeen, vice president, NAVEXEngage online learning at NAVEX Global, agrees: “The focus of any sexual harassment education and prevention programme should be how one’s behaviour has an impact on others and the culture. Employees must learn to ask themselves whether what they are saying or doing could make others feel disrespected, excluded, degraded or humiliated. It’s about fostering a culture of empathy where employees practice and show compassion for others.”

Mangwana points out that some countries have gone further with legislation to quell ambiguities. The Netherlands recently removed the requirement for offending conduct to be classed as “unwanted”, helping victims avoid arguments about whether they consented to or “went along with” the treatment – a standard that ignores the reality of the power dynamics often at play.

Meanwhile, in France, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and China, the law places a much greater duty on businesses to prevent harassment from occurring, with financial consequences for employers that fail to do this. By contrast, the UK places the onus on the victim to progress a tribunal claim, for which they may potentially receive compensation.

Free anti-sexual harassment awareness videos to share with your employees.

Driving Policies Home

One challenge for compliance teams is managing harassment policies across different countries, accounting for cultural sensitivities and conventions. But compliance teams also need to contextualise company harassment policies effectively, using industry-specific examples of what isn’t appropriate. Otherwise, policies risk being ignored, says Mangwana.

After becoming aware of hundreds of reports of sexual harassment, including some of rape, in the theatre industry last year, the Royal Court Theatre in London released an industry code of behaviour to prevent harassment and abuses of power. Recognising that situations regularly arose in which boundaries could be blurred, it made specific recommendations including: “It is never appropriate for someone in a junior role to be asked by someone in a senior role to work outside hours in their private home”.

Only 25 per cent reported having experienced sexual harassment when the term was not defined, but 60 per cent did when specific behaviours were offered as examples.

Ensuring everyone is on the same page when defining sexual harassment will be key to dealing with the problem in the future. As a 2017 study from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found, when acts of harassment are specifically defined, more women report incidents. Only 25 per cent reported having experienced sexual harassment when the term was not defined, but 60 per cent did when specific behaviours were offered as examples. This is not to suggest that companies should devote resources to drafting a long list of inappropriate behaviours. Instead, they should use examples of misconduct to demonstrate the importance of respect, compassion and empathy, and to communicate what that means for behaviour in the workplace.

Research from the Trades Union Congress found that the most common form of workplace sexual harassment experienced by women in the UK was hearing comments of a sexual nature about other women (35%), followed by unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature (32%) and comments of a sexual nature about bodies or clothes (28%).

Failure to heed such research will leave firms on a “slippery slope” and foster “toxic cultures”, says Ben Willmott, head of public policy at Britain’s Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. He also rejects claims that a stricter, more readily enforced definition of harassment will, as the #PasMoi movement suggests, stop people being able to be themselves at work. “It’s not about becoming overly politically correct or oversensitive,” he says. “This is just the law of the modern workplace, and about making sure there are clear expectations for behaviour and that leaders take those standards seriously.”

Download Market Report: Tackling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


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