Sexual harassment red flags you need to know about, according to HR experts

'Often harassment is tolerated or is perpetrated by senior people within an organisation'

Olivia Petter
Tuesday 17 October 2017 16:27

As Hollywood recoils in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and allegations continue to emerge, the prevalence of sexual harassment is under more scrutiny than ever.

Nearly two thirds of young women have experienced sexual harassment at work, but how is it recognised from a human resources perspective?

Are male perpetrators more common? Are there grey areas? And how do you know when to report it?

We spoke to two HR experts to demystify the misconceptions surrounding sexual harassment in the work place, and identify the key red flags that can this kind of behaviour could occur.

What counts as sexual harassment?

The legal definition, within the Equality Act 2010, states that sexual harassment is behaviour that is either meant to, or has the effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Of course, one could argue that this definition is subjective.

According to Kerry McGowan, director at The HR Specialists Consultancy, the term encompasses any unwanted actions, whether that’s verbal or physical.

“This can include unwelcome comments, even if the person giving them sees them as compliments. sexual advances or favours, touching, jokes of a sexual nature, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings, emailing anything with a sexual nature. We look at every case on its merits,” she told The Independent.

HR Manager at Plus HR Elaine Howell added that it is less common for men to be abused by women, although it does happen occasionally.

What differentiates a compliment from harassment?

In 2016, one male MP caused a furore when he referred to Isabel Hardman, assistant editor of The Spectator, as “the totty.”

When debating the incident on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates explained that the reference was an example of sexual harassment in the work place, whereas former politician Edwina Currie argued that Hardman should have recognised the comment as a compliment.

“If somebody called me totty I’d be delighted,” she said.

Whilst critics lambasted Currie’s argument as archaic, her repeated question of “how can you tell the difference?” between a compliment and harassment clearly demonstrated how some people could misinterpret inappropriate comments and refrain from reporting it by conflating them with compliments.

“As HR professionals our job is to look at each situation on its merits,” explains McGowan. “Does it meet the legal test of sexual harassment? It’s not just if the behaviour is meant to cause the problem but it’s also if it has 'the effect' whether intentional or not.”

Naturally, some forms are more obvious than others, however, Howell adds that it’s important to acknowledge that there are “grey areas” with regards to harassment which leave room for interpretation.

In these instances, she advises people to gauge for themselves what is appropriate vs what is not, explaining that most people have an "internal barometer" that will enable them to make a fair judgement.

“Comments about another's appearance do not form part of a professional conversation and therefore it is expected that we don't engage in them at work until a certain level of personal rapport has been built,” she told The Independent.

“Unfortunately, some people don't have the emotional intelligence to naturally sense whether rapport exists between themselves and others or what types of behaviour may be welcome or warranted by another individual.

“This means that if someone accuses a colleague of inappropriate comments which may be appropriate in the workplace in another relationship or circumstance, we would generally advise the first step is to ensure the alleged harasser has been told the behaviour is unwelcome.”

What are the key red flags to look out for?

According to McGowan, the most common forms of sexual harassment at work include:

  • Making frequent sexual remarks towards an employee, often waiting until the employee is alone
  • Repeatedly touching or brushing past an employee
  • Receiving sexually explicit e-mails
  • Inquiring about an employee’s sex life or about their personal life
  • Pestering an employee for a date
  • Suggesting sexual favours or ways of dressing that might help their career

How is sexual harassment at work addressed?

Often, this depends on who the harasser is and the culture of the organisation, McGowan explained.

According to Howell, if there is an HR team in place, they will take into account power dynamics between the two employees in question i.e. whether the abuser is in a position of power over the victim as this may contribute toward the victim feeling unable to express the fact that the behaviour is unwanted and/or powerless to stop it.

“Often harassment is tolerated or is perpetrated by senior people within an organisation,” she added.

The problem is that a lot of harassers will belittle their behaviour as cultural normalities, which can make it very difficult for victims to report any incidents.

“Unfortunately, victims often feel embarrassed by what has happened to them and therefore don't raise it in the first instance which allows it to escalate,” she said.

“If after a thorough investigation, the facts remain unclear, the decision will rest on what a reasonable person would conclude in light of the findings of the investigation i.e. What is known and what the various parties claim has happened.”

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