Following the revelations of sexual harassment and assault - and allegations of rape - by Harvey Weinstein that filled the news media a few weeks ago, I recently heard Sir Tom Jones on the radio admitting that something similar was attempted against him early in his career. There have been many scandals involving sexual harassment and abuse (including child abuse) in recent years; among the most notorious sexual predators here in the UK were Jimmy Saville and Cyril Smith, not to mention the widespread child sexual abuse in churches of various denominations. Now, numerous allegations ranging from unwanted touching to rape, are coming out of the woodwork against MPs and other public figures, Sadly, it seems that sexual harassment in all its guises is not at all unusual.
Abuse of power
What all these situations have in common is that the perpetrator is a highly respected person in a powerful position, who abuses that power for their personal gratification, and - most disturbingly - people around them look the other way. Eventually the victims start to speak out, and the extent of the abuse becomes public. Everybody is shocked, there are calls for such intolerable conduct to be stamped out, then the furore dies down until a few years later somebody else hits the headlines, whether from the world of politics, or the media, or the church, or indeed the business community. It keeps happening.
Definition of sexual harassment
So what exactly are we talking about? Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct which violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It is a type of bullying. Sexual harassment is based on the person’s sex. The term covers a range of activities of varying degrees of seriousness, from the relatively minor (“banter”, lewd jokes, sexual innuendo) through to the threatening (unwelcome sexual advances, pestering for sexual favours, promises of career advancement in return for sexual favours, threats to a person’s continued employment if they refuse sexual activity) to physical sexual assault and rape. It may be an isolated incident or a pattern of persistent behaviour, it may be obvious or subtle, face-to-face or indirect. Although often associated with male bosses trying their luck with female members of staff, it can be perpetrated by people of any gender towards others of any gender - as the revelations by Sir Tom Jones show.
I used to say I'd never experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, but thinking back, there was one incident that fits the definition, that I am now going to share.
When I was in my twenties at the start of my career, I had an experience which could have ended very badly. I got on very well with my manager and he valued me and was helping me develop my HR career. Sometimes when he needed to discuss particularly confidential matters he would take me round the corner to a cafe for a cup of tea, or a bite of lunch. One day he said he had a very sensitive and important project to tell me about, and suggested going out for dinner. He would pick me up at my house and drive me to the restaurant. I saw no reason not to agree; we'd driven to meetings together many times before, and I'd never felt unsafe. We had a very nice meal accompanied by a glass or two of wine, and the project sounded very challenging; I was keen to get my teeth into it. At the end of the evening he drove me back home, but stopped short of the turning into my road and suggested going elsewhere for "a cuddle" first. I was shocked, and said: "I'd just like to go home, please" and thankfully he did take me home. It was never mentioned again and didn't affect my work. But I now realise I had put myself in a very vulnerable position, and somebody with fewer scruples could certainly have taken advantage of my naivety, or taken umbrage at my refusal and made my life difficult at work. I was very lucky that neither of those outcomes came to pass. Many others have been less fortunate.
Effects on the victim
Sometimes people who carry out low-level sexual harassment (“banter”, jokes, suggestive comments etc.) claim they are just “having a laugh” and mean no harm. Nevertheless it is clear from the definition of harassment that it is the effect on the victim, not the perpetrator’s intention, that matters. And for victims it’s no laughing matter.
The effects on the victims of sexual harassment can range from discomfort and embarrassment, to anxiety, stress, insomnia, sickness absence, fear of going to work, feeling forced to resign - even mental illness. People subjected to sexual harassment can feel intimidated and helpless, particularly if the perpetrator is in a more senior position within the organisation. Often, people in authority convince their victims there is no point complaining because nobody will believe them or do anything to help them anyway, or they resort to financial settlements to silence their victims to preserve their reputations - as Harvey Weinstein apparently did.
Clearly the productivity and effectiveness (and perhaps attendance record) of somebody suffering in this way will be impaired, so even if there were no moral imperative to act, there would be a commercial reason to do so. Furthermore, employers are under a duty of care towards their employees, and under Health and Safety legislation they are obliged to safeguard the well-being of their staff, which includes their mental as well as physical welfare. So if such behaviour is discovered within an organization, what should the employer do?
Create an open and respectful culture
The objective must be to create a culture in which there is a clear expectation that people will treat others with dignity and respect. The building blocks of this will include:
Some powerful people, like Harvey Weinstein, abuse their power to promote or scupper the career prospects of others, by subjecting others to sexual harassment or abuse. They get away with it because people around them, fearing for their own livelihoods, don't have the courage to speak out against them, or if they do, they are not listened to. And it seems the more these people get away with, the more they come to believe they are untouchable, and the worse their behaviour becomes. These issues must be nipped in the bud before they escalate from the relatively trivial to the monstrous and damaging. We should not feel comfortable in a world where abusive behaviour is not unusual.
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