Written by Vera Cherepanova on Friday February 23, 2018
Over the past months, the world has witnessed a rise of an unprecedented global movement against sexual harassment and assault. It has been estimated that #MeToo has been retweeted almost 2 million times across 85 countries. This global ‘hotline' facilitated widespread sharing of sexual harassment stories and brought about an international conversation over sexual misconduct, especially at the workplace.
For those of us who have a career in compliance the #MeToo movement also raises a number of practical considerations. As highlighted by the campaign, sexual harassment cuts across all industries, affecting all classes of people. Incidents can be found in entertainment, sports, politics, media, financial institutions and IT corporations. Those who are posting and tweeting revelations in social media may be employees of your organization, and in the majority of cases, it took them years (if not decades!) to come forward. It's time to rethink what constitutes a harassment-free workplace environment and revisit your anti-harassment policies, fostering a cultural shift in attitudes to this issue.
In the UK, the Equality Act defines sexual harassment as ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.' To evaluate the ‘unwantedness' the circumstances surrounding the case should be evaluated, including but not limited to whether:
A hostile work environment would generally mean that the unwanted conduct is so severe and pervasive that it alters the conditions of the employment. Therefore, in the majority of cases, a pattern of offensive conduct would be required to confirm it.
Behaviors that constitute sexual misconduct come in different forms. Examples may include suggestive remarks or sex-based slurs, gossips about one's personal sex life, unwanted touching, display or dissemination of pornography, requests or demands for sex. Clearly, sexual harassment doesn't necessarily involve a physical contact, as someone could think.
Although the legislation unambiguously recognizes sexual harassment as a form of discrimination and prohibited conduct, the magnitude of the problem is still nationwide. Recent BBC survey shows that half of the British women and fifth of men have experienced incidents of sexual harassment at work or at place of study. An earlier study by TUC and Everyday Sexism found that 25% of women polled have experienced unwanted touching, while 20% were exposed to unwelcome verbal sexual advances.
But only one in five reported experienced misconduct to their employer, the main reason for not reporting being the absence of a supportive culture in the organization. Many felt ashamed and thought their allegations would not be taken seriously, others feared retaliation. Indeed, the TUC report found that nearly 20% of reported cases relate to a harassment from a direct boss. Without a proper investigation to raise a concern in these circumstances could mean risking one's job.
What should be done to change these worrying figures? How can organizations foster the culture of zero-tolerance to sexual harassment and abuse at the workplace? What follows are practical steps that compliance officers can consider to revamp the existing corporate compliance programs.
Ensure you have a stated policy against sexual harassment, whether as a separate document or as a section in the code of conduct. Given the cases of sexual misconduct are not the most straightforward ones, it would make sense to include examples that are easily understood. To make the policy known, make sure the information is equally reflected in the employee handbook and orientation for new hires.
Many companies include questions on harassment in the annual compliance training, but in some cases, it clearly won't suffice. Based on risk-oriented approach evaluate and assess together with HR if any departments may require a tailored in-depth program and whether it should target everyone or be gender-specific. Ensure the training materials are comprehensive and foster a broader discussion of inappropriate workplace behaviours.
Middle management needs to be trained to recognize and respond to sexual harassment in a responsible manner and in accordance with the law. Team leaders can help prevent sexual harassment from occurring by enforcing the existing policies and creating a harassment-free environment in their teams. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure they are equipped with knowledge and skills to identify and address what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.
Whether your company is using a third-party or an internal hotline, it is important to ensure that employees are well aware of its availability for reporting of all types of workplace allegations, including harassment cases they experienced or observed. With the sensitivity of the topic, it may be worth identifying a responsible individual (or gender-specific individuals) in HR department in case it would feel more comfortable to report the incident in person.
Any investigation of a harassment case creates discomfort for all parties - the victim, the alleged, and the witness(es). Therefore, it is crucial to conduct it in a respectful, objective and unbiased manner to ensure the privacy and rights protection for everyone involved. In case the allegations are confirmed, the corrective action should be taken immediately to mitigate the risk of any additional harm to victim or company. Your remedial action should be proportionate to the seriousness of the revealed misconduct. And, of course, thoroughly document your every step.
Whether we want it or not, people tend to imitate the behavior of their leaders. Therefore, ensure that you have top-management buy-in to proceed with your anti-harassment initiatives. Without an explicit commitment to ethical organizational culture, employees may not feel supported in reporting of sexual misconduct. Middle management plays a key role in cascading down the organizational values to their team members, so make sure they are fully onboard.
The recent campaign in social media uncovered the existing magnitude of inappropriate sexual behaviour at the workplace – so overwhelming that it can't be dismissed or otherwise ignored by employers. Turning a blind eye is no longer an option. Employers' inaction or improper action would have far-reaching consequences, affecting workplace environment, employee morale, and ultimately the company bottom line. Therefore, it is vital to promote a harassment-free organizational culture – not just from a legalistic perspective of compliance initiatives, but also because it is just good for the business.
What are your thoughts on this sensitive, and emotive topic? What lessons can we learn, as a compliance community? Please share your comments on our social media channels.
This piece was written for ICA by Vera Cherepanova, guest contributor to the #BigCompConvo
Vera Cherepanova, ACCA, CIA, MSc has more than 10 years’ experience as a Compliance Officer and currently is a self-employed ethics and compliance consultant in Milan, Italy.
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