What to Do If You Encounter Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

What to Do If You Encounter Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
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Warning: this article deals with the topic of sexual harassment and abuse and may be triggering to some. Please reach out to 1800 RESPECT if you’re in need of support.

As history has sadly made apparent, sexual harassment and even abuse in the workplace is something we need to be discussing more often.

While it is my genuine wish that no one ever needs this information, the heartbreaking reality is that someone somewhere will eventually be in need of resources that can help them navigate the difficult circumstances that surround workplace harassment. With that considered, I reached out to the teams at White Ribbon Australia, 1800 RESPECT and psychology practice The Indigo Project for some practical advice.

Here is what they shared:

To begin, how would you define sexual harassment?

Psychology Researcher and Mental Health Practitioner with the Indigo Project, Ash King, shared over email that “Sexual harassment includes unwelcome words or behaviour of a sexual nature that may leave a person feeling offended, humiliated, objectified or intimidated”.

She explained that the experience affects “overall wellbeing” with those impacted far more likely to report feelings of “anxiety, stress and depression,” but stated that it can also take a toll “on one’s sense of self”.

Jacinta Smith of 1800 RESPECT added over email that:

“Sexual harassment is an abuse of power. It is an unwanted or unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that leaves a person feeling offended, intimidated or uncomfortable. It is not consensual. It can include but is not limited to:

  • Unwanted and persistent invitations to go out on a date, or requests for sexual intercourse
  • Emailing/texting pornography
  • Inappropriate or unwanted familiarity
  • Intrusive comments or questions about a person’s private life or body
  • Lude, sexual and suggestive comments or jokes”

Why do some people avoid reporting instances of harassment?

Brad Chilcott, Executive Director with White Ribbon Australia explained over the phone that “in many workplaces, we still have a situation where there are repercussions [for speaking up about bad behaviour].”

He shared that in situations involving women specifically, there are cases where if they “speak out against a male colleague or especially a male boss, it won’t be the perpetrator who is punished… it will be the person making the complaint. And I think that’s a real fear [for women],” he said.

Add to that concerns about having your complaints brushed off, as King pointed out, and it’s clear why some find it difficult to speak out.

In saying that, though, King shared that “thanks to the #MeToo movement, and a number of high profile individuals speaking out about harassment and assault, harassment has become a public issue and one that companies and leaders have a responsibility to confront”.

When is it worth speaking up?

Both King and Chilcott shared that whenever you’re made to feel uncomfortable it’s worth saying something – if you are ready to. Whether that’s calling out the behaviour directly or speaking with a manager, there are steps that can be taken even in the early stages of inappropriate behaviour. And as King said, “there isn’t a rule book on what strictly constitutes sexual harassment”. Your experience and feelings are always valid.

However, “When you feel like somebody is making unwanted advances or touching you without consent, or making overtly sexualised comments towards you… I think it’s immediately valid to make a complaint about those things,” Chilcott said.

“There’s a pretty clear line around what kind of touching and words are acceptable.”

In this same vein, if you witness inappropriate behaviour it’s also important to speak up and interrupt that treatment. It can also be worth reaching out privately to those impacted, to check in on how they are feeling (if appropriate).

Quite plainly, Smith stated that:

“Unless we all play our part to intervene, or take action against sexual harassment, we remain part of the culture that says ‘it’s ok’.”

Who should you speak to about this?

In most workplaces, there should be some kind of company policy regarding sexual harassment and protecting staff. King advises that you write down your experience clearly with times and dates and as much detail as possible, then send your complaint to the appropriate manager or HR department over email.

“If you don’t want to officially report it, talk to someone close to you that you trust (like a friend or therapist) about what has happened and how it made you feel,” she added.

On this point, Chilcott shared that while HR is the most obvious recommendation, some people don’t feel comfortable with that option, or perhaps don’t trust it will help them in the long run.

He suggested that in those cases, calling 1800 RESPECT is always a good idea as they can offer counselling services and advice. Chilcott also stated that if you’re part of a union, you can reach out to a representative for support.

“…having someone go with you to meet with your superiors is a really valuable thing to do, as well,” he said.

Smith simply stated that “there is always support available” and similarly to Chilcott, stated that 1800 RESPECT can “provide counselling to people who have experienced sexual harassment or assault, and advise on appropriate referral pathways”.

Lastly, if your workplace is in need of some helpful resources when it comes to developing sound policies and procedures around sexual harassment, White Ribbon has a hub online you can visit. You can find that here. Additionally, 1800 RESPECT has a number of useful resources for everything from support to training.

This article has been updated since its original publish date. 

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