From joking about a colleague’s sex life to casual butt-pinching, businesses are rife with sexual harassment and pressure to eliminate it is mounting – but which behaviours cross the line?
While groping a workmate or showing them porn on your computer may be universally frowned upon, experts say sexual harassment can be difficult to combat because people have different reactions to others’ behaviour.
“No means no, but there is a lot of room for error and embarrassment before you get to it,” said Martin Sirakov, who works for a healthcare provider in London.
“As a man, I don’t feel confident about what is socially acceptable and what isn’t,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It strikes me as a little weird to ask for consent every time you want to make a move like, ‘Can I touch your back? Or put my arm around you?’”
Allegations of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual behaviour have moved millions of women to share their stories of abuse – including in the workplace – on social media with the hashtag #MeToo.
Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.
Britain’s industrial mediation body ACAS issued advice last week on behaviours that could be considered sexual harassment, such as unwanted touching, forwarding emails with sexual content
or making sexual comments about a colleague’s appearance.
But it is age, not gender, that most heavily influences attitudes, a survey by British pollster YouGov found.
While 76 percent of British people over 65 saw wolf-whistling as harmless fun, only 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds agreed.
Most respondents in the younger age group said wolf-whistling was “sexist and completely unacceptable”.
Key to what constitutes sexual harassment is how a specific behaviour is received, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said.
“A comment on a colleague’s haircut could be innocuous and welcome,” a TUC spokeswoman said via email.
“But other comments – such as the size of a colleague’s breasts – can also be perceived as hostile, humiliating and degrading.”
Maisie Greenwood, a UK-based translator in her early 30s, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that she can find it “patronising” when colleagues – men or women – affectionately call her ‘darling’ or ‘love’.
Experts say people are often reluctant to report sexual harassment because they fear they will not be taken seriously, be branded a complainer, get colleagues fired or lose their own jobs.
Leaders at the top of organisations should set the right tone, London’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a body for human resource professionals, said online last week.
“Harassment typically happens from men in positions of power taking advantage of women who are their junior,” it said, calling on businesses to bring men and women together to discuss their perspectives and to encourage people to speak out.
Rachel Krys, co-director of End Violence Against Women The coalition agreed on the need to talk.
“Businesses might think they have a friendly office environment but it’s their responsibility to genuinely ask: ‘What is our workers’ experience?’ and not be scared of the answer,” she said.
Power differentials are critical and more vulnerable workers, such as those on zero-hour contracts, are more likely to experience sexual harassment, she said.
“Be it in Hollywood, in law firms or in hospitals, people in senior positions have abused their power because they know they can get away with it,” she said. “Think about it, have you evern been harassed by a colleague in an ‘inferior’ position?”