How to reduce sexual harassment at work? Remind us that we’re in a protected space

Photo of man with hand on woman's shoulder

I watched ‘Is This Sexual Harassment?’ on the BBC. They take a bunch of young people; show them a dramatised scenario which might (or might not) be sexual harassment; and invite a couple of people who share their real-life experiences. At the end, the young people must decide whether the scenario was indeed sexual harassment.

Perhaps most memorable of all was the story of Helen (a real person). She made a sexual harassment complaint and ended up having to take her case to an employment tribunal, which she won. She talked about how the experience disempowers you; she knew her treatment was wrong, but it was hard to find a way to ‘stand up for’ herself – though of course, there would have been lots of signs of her discomfort. The experience inhibited her and made her question whether by being her normal friendly self, she had lead the perpetrators on.

What was interesting about the programme was that, to begin with, most of the participants found themselves debating the rights and wrongs of the behaviour in a general sense, not accounting for the fact that the incident took place at work.

When you’re employed by someone, you are accountable to them and must play the role you’re being paid to play. But beyond that, there are laws which restrict other aspects of your behaviour. While most people do try to get on with colleagues on a personal level, no one has the right to demand social interaction of their colleagues, or impose it. Unless specified in your contract, your personal identity is private and protected.

Sexual harassment is gross and unfair. I see no reason why people can’t get better at following the rules so that it can become less common. As the BBC has shown, we clearly need more sexual harassment training. We need to be reminded of our responsibilities and our rights. This way, people like Helen won’t have to wonder if they ‘brought it upon themselves’. Though unpleasant, people like Helen will have confidence that there is no ambiguity – sexual harassment has no place at work. And perhaps potential perpetrators will see that, what may seem like a harmless bit of fun, is really not worth the risk.

One caveat: When men and women form friendly relationships, there is always the risk of one person getting the wrong idea, and genuinely misreading signals. Let’s face it, many of us are up for meeting a (sexual) partner in the workplace so we can’t always blame someone for getting it wrong. As one small preventative measure, we can all be mindful of this risk.