How to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
There is substantial and compelling evidence that current institutionalised, legalistic responses to sexual harassment in the workplace are not effective in combating the problem and, in some cases, may exacerbate it. A new approach is required, one based in transparency, respect and cultural change, one that places responsibility with the leaders of organisations to create safe and respectful workplaces.
The Champions of Change Coalition has undertaken extensive work in this area and argues that visible leadership is required to drive disruptive change – incremental improvements are not enough. The Disrupting the System report provides the framework for this change. An overview of the principles and resources is offered here to support action in architecture and built environment practices.
Sexual harassment, in all its forms, is an abuse of power. It is a social problem, driven by gender inequality in the workplace and intensified for certain groups. Unfortunately, some established strategies employed in response to complaints may tacitly condone behaviour, silence people, entrench enabling systems and even exacerbate trauma.
Most people can describe sexual harassment in the workplace through experience or observation. For too many, dealing with sexual harassment is an accepted part of navigating workplace dynamics. Numerous studies and organisational inquiries have sought to expose the extent of the issue, but underreporting remains rife. This indicates that people do not feel safe in raising sexual harassment, lack confidence in existing systems to deal with it, or both.
Harassment can happen to anyone, but it is not experienced in the same ways. For example, people of diverse sexual orientation or gender identity commonly report sexual harassment as intrusive questions about their intimate relationships; while women of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds experience sexual harassment in ways that are often bound up in assumptions and stereotypes based on race and gender.
Sexual harassment causes harm. It is significant and can be felt immediately, emerge over time and/or result in long-term trauma. The impacts are personal, varied and deeply affecting. Harms may include anxiety, depression, stress, relationship breakdowns, physical ailments, career consequences and financial loss caused by sexual harassment. Evidence of these harms is well-documented. The harm also extends to families, people who witness incidents and people within and outside of organisations who have to support those impacted, respond to or manage the behaviour.
Disrupting the System involves a zero tolerance approach to eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace. This means pursuing actions and consequences that are appropriate and proportionate and taking into account the wishes of the person subjected to the harassment. It involves considering context and creating cultures of respect, trust and safety. It means empowering people to speak about harassment, to change behaviour if required, and to respond appropriately in the moment to prevent repetition and escalation.
The following extract introduces the Disrupting the System principles, outlines concrete actions that can be taken by leaders and organisations, and links to tools and resources that may be adapted or adopted by practices to their specific contexts. We encourage readers to use this as a start, and to also refer to the full comprehensive Disrupting the System document.
The article is organised into six sections – the five principles plus resources and tools:
- Elevate the prevention of sexual harassment and early intervention as a leadership priority.
- Address sexual harassment as a workplace health and safety issue.
- Introduce new principles on confidentiality and transparency for high-profile sexual harassment cases.
- Inform, empower and expect everyone to speak up and take action on sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Listen to, respect, empower and support people impacted.
- Practical resources and tools
An overview of the resources offered by the Champions of Change Coalition to be adapted or adopted in your own context.
1. Elevate the prevention of sexual harassment and early intervention as a leadership priority.
At its core, sexual harassment is a misuse of power. It is therefore an issue of leadership and values at the heart of the organisation. Leaders must be accountable and ensure safe and respectful environments for all, which prioritise the physical and psychological safety of employees.
Actions for leaders
- Develop and publicise a gender equality strategy and action plan and strive for gender balance in the workforce.
- Set expectations and support leaders to address gender inequality, gender-based discrimination, everyday sexism, sexual harassment and violence against women.
- Understand how sexual harassment manifests in your own organisation and industry, the risks and impacts.
- Role model standards of behaviour, addressing disrespectful and/or unlawful behaviour in the moment and empowering others to do so.
- Clearly articulate that eradicating sexual harassment is a leadership priority.
- Ensure all employees – especially those with a high status – know your stance that sexual harassment, everyday sexism and unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated in any circumstance.
- Share leadership stories and de-identified case studies to support individual and organisational learning and behaviour change.
- Require oversight of incidents and regular reporting.
Fundamentals for organisations
- Develop and share a robust and effective standalone sexual harassment policy that responds to current issues and expectations of all employees or relaunch one with a strengthened commitment.
- Develop and communicate a clear position on personal relationships at work.
- Reference sexual harassment and its consequences explicitly in employment contracts, codes of conduct and/or performance management frameworks. Make clear to all, and in particular senior men, and with contractors, consultants and sub-contractors, that unlawful and inappropriate behaviour will have real consequences.
- Explicitly state expectations of behaviour in contractor, subcontractor and consulting agreements.
- Measure and monitor information and data that provides insight into culture, as well as reports of sexual harassment, the number and characteristics of formal allegations of sexual harassment, and also informal reports that are managed within teams.
- Report sexual harassment cases regularly and transparently to senior leaders, the board and external stakeholders.
- Incorporate reporting on these issues, and the financial impact of settlements, as part of annual reports.
THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOOD POLICY
Policy plays an important role in the prevention of sexual harassment, but policy alone is not a preventer of sexual harassment nor a panacea. Robust policy is the cornerstone of good governance for many organisations. It should demonstrate that preventing and responding to sexual harassment is a priority for the organisation, explain the role everyone must play in prevention and early intervention, and provide clear options for people who experience sexual harassment.
An effective policy should include the following, regardless of the policy length or level of formality:
- Articulate the organisation’s position.
- Educate employees on the range of behaviours that may be considered sexual harassment.
- Explain that sexual harassment is both unacceptable and unlawful.
- Explain the role everyone plays in intervention and action when behaviour is inconsistent with expectations.
- Offer multiple options for people who wish to raise a concern about someone’s behaviour.
- Define ways the organisation can help resolve issues.
- Outline how the organisation will respect and support people who report sexual harassment.
- Illustrate what some of the outcomes might be.
- Explain how the organisation will respect privacy, confidentiality and transparency.
- Outline its commitment to ongoing review and learning to inform prevention efforts.
Refer to the Example policy in the Resources section below.
2. Address sexual harassment as a workplace health and safety issue.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can have long-term emotional, psychological, physical and financial impacts on those affected. Yet it is rarely treated with the same rigour applied to other types of workplace harm. The common approach of treating sexual harassment as an individual grievance, rather than a systemic organisational issue, inhibits the capacity to create long-term structural change.
Reframing sexual harassment as a health and safety issue is important. It locates harassment within existing workplace health and safety obligations and places due diligence obligations on senior leaders. It requires leaders to understand the hazards and risks associated with the business operations and to ensure there are resources and processes in place to eliminate them, including the creation of psychologically safe environments. It also places reciprocal duties on workers to protect each other from harm to their health and safety.
Actions for leaders
- Clearly articulate that the prevention of sexual harassment is a leadership and workplace health and safety issue to ensure the physical and psychological wellbeing of all employees.
- Ensure a risk assessment has been undertaken in your organisation.
- Be clear about consequences and disciplinary action for different types of behaviour and follow through where necessary.
- Make the consequences visible for those who have breached sexual harassment policy, by sharing aggregated and de-identified case studies.
Fundamentals for organisations
- Ensure alignment and collaboration between leaders and the core functions responsible for preventing and responding to sexual harassment – workplace health and safety, human resources, legal and communications.
- Adapt workplace health and safety strategies to address sexual harassment in all its forms.
- Include questions about sexual harassment in employee engagement surveys or conduct standalone surveys to create a more robust and reliable measure of prevalence and high-risk work groups beyond actual complaints made.
- Include sexual harassment on risk registers to be managed in the same manner as other workplace safety risks.
- Develop Standard Operating Procedures for ‘critical incidents’ of sexual harassment.
3. Introduce principles on confidentiality and transparency for high-profile sexual harassment cases.
The current legal system used to address complaints within many workplaces has been important in giving rights and avenues for redress to people impacted by sexual harassment, but it has not been effective in eradicating it. The use of non-disclosure agreements, in particular, has silenced people impacted, allowed the behaviour to continue and at times, appeared to condone it.
Transparency means being honest about the fact that sexual harassment exists, and enables organisations to learn from experiences and improve prevention efforts. This includes letting people talk about the incident for their own healing and wellbeing if they wish, and ensures external and internal stakeholders know that sexual harassment is treated as a serious workplace issue and will not be hidden.
Irrespective of whether a reported issue is resolved through informal pathways or formal investigation, due process and natural justice are essential. This includes giving someone the opportunity to understand the allegations and to respond; respecting and supporting individuals involved; facilitating a timely and objective process; substantiating decisions and ensuring outcomes are fair and proportionate; and, critically, maintaining confidentiality.
The principles on confidentiality and transparency developed by the Champions of Change Coalition serve as both a prevention mechanism and practical guide, and represent a significant shift in organisational practice.
Actions for leaders
- Develop and endorse new principles around transparency and confidentiality as part of the processes covering communication with parties involved, the media and the organisation.
- Change standard approaches to non-disclosure agreements to avoid silencing complainants and allow some transparency and disclosure to employees, stakeholders and the community.
- Communicate the guidelines widely so that the organisation’s position is clear, supports prevention efforts and acts as a deterrent to offenders.
- Share internal updates on sexual harassment with the organisation.
Fundamentals for organisations
- Work with key internal teams and relevant suppliers covering HR, Legal, Compliance and Corporate Affairs to introduce and apply the principles. Lead a change in approach and communicate it widely.
- Build internal updates on efforts to address sexual harassment into the schedule of staff communications.
4. Inform, empower and expect everyone to speak up and take action on sexual harassment in the workplace
Everyone has a role to play. Senior leadership actions are critical for setting the tone within an organisation and leading disruptive action, but everyone in the organisation should feel empowered, supported and expected to intervene when they see, or know of, sexual harassment. This is consistent with employees’ reciprocal duty of care to protect each other from harm to their health and safety, including psychological harm. In particular, the power of men intervening when they see or know of other men behaving disrespectfully cannot be underestimated.
Supportive systems and cultures must be put in place to encourage employees to intervene when they witness sexual harassment, normalise such actions and make them safe. This helps shift the responsibility for speaking up from the individual impacted to others who observe or know of sexual harassment.
A practical approach
The evidence shows that most people who experience sexual harassment want the behaviour to stop, to have their experience validated, their organisation to know that it happened, and for it not to happen to anyone else. In many cases, all people want is an apology. Early intervention and informal pathways can help deliver these outcomes. It is essential that the organisation responds in a way that holds the experience and wellbeing of the person impacted at the core.
Context is everything
When it comes to understanding a person’s experience of sexual harassment, context is everything. It is the lens through which an individual experiences the behaviour of others. Context filters intent and can amplify impact or give the behaviour a different nature. It explains why a certain behaviour, for example a kiss or a touch on the back is experienced as ‘ok’ in one situation, and ‘not ok’ in others.
Contextual factors that come into play may include:
- Relationship and power disparity between the parties.
- The history of the relationship.
- Previous patterns of behaviour between the parties (i.e. one-off incident or pattern).
- Tone, verbal and non-verbal cues.
- Position in the organisation.
- Employment status, job security and the nature of work.
- Where and when the incident takes place.
- Number of alleged offenders.
- Previous experience with sexual harassment and how it was handled.
- Personal characteristics of age, gender identity, sexual orientation, Indigeneity, other cultural and linguistic diversity, and disability which can make people more subject to the behaviour.
All of these combine to affect a person’s experiences of and responses to sexual harassment.
When context is overlaid onto a behaviour, such as a kiss, the change of dynamic is clear: a kiss hello from a colleague who is also a longstanding friend; a kiss from a manager along with a salacious ‘look’ at a work social function; a kiss from a senior leader with power over career progress in their office after hours. All of these are a ‘kiss’ but with varying levels of discomfort, offence and impact because of context. It is important to note that there are some behaviours that are criminal offences and context is irrelevant.
Actions for leaders
- Establish a common framework and language for identifying, raising and responding to sexual harassment in all its forms.
- Build into leadership communication, policy and practice that speaking up and taking action against sexual harassment in the workplace is an expectation on all employees, and in many circumstances a workplace health and safety obligation.
- Create a workplace environment that is safe for people to speak up.
Fundamentals for organisations
• Build capability of internal teams to respond appropriately to sexual harassment.
• Ensure that systems, processes and communication treats sexual harassment as a type of workplace harm.
• Help employees to understand the range of behaviours that constitute sexual harassment and the range of responses for people impacted, observers, offenders and organisations.
• Provide employees with tools and language to help them safely raise concerns about inappropriate behaviour in the moment and/or support those that may be impacted.
5. Listen to, respect, empower and support people impacted.
Sexual harassment cases have lasting implications for the parties involved, which affect workplace relationships, families and communities over the short, medium and long term. Building trust is essential. This means treating those who report issues with respect, helping the people impacted to heal, to be and feel respected, and to continue to thrive in their careers.
The actual or perceived power of offenders can determine how well and quickly their reputation is restored and how they recover in the workplace, while the people impacted are left with shattered self-confidence, reputations and careers. There is also a long history of people leaving organisations, even when issues are seen to have been resolved. Whatever the outcome, an organisation, leader and work team is left with an issue they need to consciously work to repair.
Organisations have a high level of responsibility to people who disclose sexual harassment. There is an obligation to provide holistic support and to ensure that issues reported are responded to by teams who know how to assist people who have experienced trauma and can support the wishes of the person impacted with appropriate expertise for the situation including counselling, facilitated conversations and investigation when needed.
Actions for leaders
- Establish person-centred, safe and supportive reporting, investigation processes and responses.
- Build capability of internal teams to respond appropriately to people impacted by sexual harassment.
- Develop and implement new standards for the use of non-disclosure agreements.
Fundamentals for organisations
- Provide multiple, confidential avenues for advice and complaints.
- Have skilled advisory teams in place to respond to issues when they arise.
- Provide the person impacted with the opportunity to guide the course of action taken, respecting their wishes for informal or formal action, where possible.
- Appoint peers or external experts to support all parties to a complaint.
- If appropriate to investigate, complete the investigation of matters in a timely, compassionate and fair manner with communication of outcomes and de-identified case studies shared with staff.
- Ensure there is swift, proportionate and appropriate outcomes for offenders.
Practical Resources & Tools
The Champions of Change Coalition has compiled an excellent list of Sexual Harassment Practical Resources & Tools, including the following:
Leadership statement example
An example statement with a structure that leaders can adapt or customise for their practice. For a leadership statement to have authenticity and impact, there are key message elements that must personally come from leaders.
What signs to look for
Developed by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, this document lists signs that workers may be at risk of sexual harassment.
Addressing everyday sexism
Everyday sexism occurs in formal and casual interactions between people. It happens in daily life. It happens frequently in workplaces. This resource includes examples of everyday sexism and actions to address it.
This is an example of a standard policy with enhancements to drive systemic change. To ensure it is effective for your practice’s specific context, this example policy should be worked through and thoughtfully adapted to your business and workforce. It is not intended nor should be taken as legal advice.
Personal relationships at work resource
Personal relationships can be conflated with sexual harassment and it may be challenging for organisations to know what role they should play and when. Sexual, romantic or intimate interaction that is entered into freely and reciprocated between consenting employees is not a form of sexual harassment. However, it is important to note that sexually inappropriate behaviour at work can still create a sexualised atmosphere that is unwanted by others in the workplace.
This resource provides guidance on what may be considered a personal relationship, and when and how they might need to be disclosed to the organisation.
Understanding sexual harassment in your organisation
Understanding the prevalence, manifestations and culture of sexual harassment is critical for leadership accountability, targeted action and monitoring progress. This resource includes excerpts from employee engagement surveys conducted by Coalition member organisations.
Before sexual harassment surveys are administered, expert advice is recommended to ensure survey participants are supported and not subjected to potential harm.
Identifying, understanding and responding when sexual harassment occurs
This table includes examples of behaviour, the contexts that amplify impact, considerations and a range of responses – from early intervention to informal action and formal action. It includes advice on what to do where an alleged criminal offence has occurred.
Employee education: SBS Inclusion Program
This comprehensive, accessible and scalable online gender equality learning program follows adult learning principles. It covers topics including: Why gender equality in the workplace matters; Women in leadership; Everyday sexism; Sexual harassment; The gender pay gap; Recruitment and promotions; Flexibility; and Workplace responses to domestic violence. This was developed in 2019 through a partnership between the Champions of Change Coalition and SBS.
For more information, visit: https://inclusion-program.com.au/gender
Characteristics of person-centred systems and approaches
This graphic illustrates key considerations when handling a sexual harassment complaint, with an emphasis on respecting and supporting the person impacted and ensuring all parties are well informed and supported.
Pathways for reporting and response
The reporting and complaints procedure must include a number of different reporting and response options. This table, developed by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, includes a range of responses and pathways, and outlines their advantages and disadvantages.
Responding to reports
This table, developed by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, outlines a step-by-step guide to responding to complaints, with tips on listening, assessing the situation, providing information and referrals, deciding whether to remain informal or investigate formally, investigating, taking action to resolve complaints, recording data, and debriefing and reflecting on lessons learned.
Referrals to external organisations
A list of organisations (national and by state and territory) that assist individuals seeking advice and support about matters related to sexual harassment. Many offer workplaces support and education services.
For more information on incorporating preventing and responding to sexual harassment see the companion piece Understanding Bullying and Harassment, watch the recording of the On Harassment discussion, and refer to the range of other articles published on harassment by the ACA.
This article was developed by Susie Ashworth and Justine Clark as a summary of Disrupting the System by the Champions of Change Coalition.
Stepping Up is a collaboration between the ACA, Parlour and the Champions of Change Architecture Group.