Sexual harassment persists despite workplace fallout

Behaviour causes ripple effect in organizations, hurting productivity, morale and attendance.

Complaints of sexual harassment have dramatically increased in Canada over the last year, and according to a new report it is having a direct effect on bottom-line returns.

Sexual harassment complaints topped the list of complaints heard by provincial human rights commissions, and 64 per cent of working women say they have experienced some form of sexual harassment throughout their careers (up from 48 per cent last year).

Researchers say the numbers are actually a lot higher since fear of retribution and embarrassment hold back some employees from complaining.

“One reason why sexual harassment persists is that employers underestimate both the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace and its impact on organizational performance,” writes Barbara Orser in her report Sexual Harassment is Still a Management Issue, produced for the Conference Board of Canada.

Women continue to be the main victims of harassment, but they aren’t the only ones to feel the effects of a workplace environment where harassment exists. According to the report, harassment creates a poisoned work environment where productivity drops along with morale.

“These overt and hidden costs have a ripple effect (and resultant cost) that not only has an impact on the complainant and harasser but also affects the productivity of co-workers and supervisors,” writes Orser.

The broader definition of sexual harassment also makes the issue more complicated to deal with and to educate people on. Sexual harassment is not only extreme sexual coercion — like being propositioned for sex by a boss; it can also be subtle, like downloading pornography from the Internet, and other behaviour that demeans someone based on gender, like overworking female employees, or not giving them enough work because they are female. Generally, harassment is defined as unwelcome or offensive behaviour.

Harassment affects productivity, retention, morale, turnover, and absenteeism rates. It also affects an employee’s self-esteem, home life, and stress levels. Some 48 per cent of women executives say they left a job because of inhospitable organizational culture and harassment, according to the report. The situation is even worse for women in minority racial groups.

All the data points to the fact that managers aren’t paying close enough attention to what is happening —- overtly or covertly — in the workplace, according to the Conference Board’s report. And while prevention and training are still the best ways to keep a workplace free from harassment, too few organizations have been vigilant in offering it.

“Some places are making more efforts but even at that there’s a real lack of understanding of how severe the effects of sexual harassment are,” said Barb MacQuarrie, with the London Sexual Assault Centre in Ontario and co-author of a preliminary report Sexual and Workplace Harassment.

In some cases the effects can be deadly, as was the case with a Chatham, Ont. woman shot to death by a male co-worker who had harassed her over a number of years.

“Theresa Vince was left to deal with it alone. She tried avoidance. The employer did not address the issue,” said MacQuarrie.

When there is no clear process for dealing with these types of complaints and consequently, no support from management for victims of harassment, MacQuarrie said victims fear reporting a harasser.

Smaller workplaces usually don’t have any formal policies and in union settings, where there is usually a legal obligation on the part of the union to represent both the victim and offender, the situation can become even worse for the victim.

According to the Conference Board report, while 20 per cent of federal government employees had experienced harassment only two per cent had launched formal harassment complaints.

“(Victims) experience a sense of hopelessness and are afraid of the economic consequences of reporting. There’s always an implicit threat that it will come back to them. We haven’t given any indication in the workplace of a sense that there is a line drawn and have that respected,” said MacQuarrie.

Having a policy is not enough. It takes effective and fair implementation, said Lynne Sullivan, a senior consultant with Towers Perrin.

Updating policies is also important to reflect changes to human rights legislation. While managers are responsible for their own set of employees, HR must ensure that the policy is consistently and fairly applied. That means putting the policy above all circumstances; for instance, if a top executive is found to be harassing a co-worker, putting the matter aside is putting the importance of the policy in question.

“Anytime a person can be seen to be more important than the policy you are saying that the policy doesn’t count.”

Reporting incidents of harassment is another way employers can show they support a policy. These reports don’t have to be specific, said Sullivan.

Rather, an employer can send out a yearly or quarterly report listing the number of complaints dealt with and the penalties imposed.

“With reporting, employees get the idea that ‘yes, our company is taking this seriously.”

The companies that are most successful in dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace are those who ultimately link those values to the broader corporate culture, said Sullivan. But, it is still up to supervisors to set the example.

“But the manager’s role is first; they have to be an example of good behaviour, behaviour that is beyond reproach.”

While management ultimately is charged with the responsibility of maintaining a safe workplace, training needs to be administered at all levels, from the top right down to the rank-and-file of an organization, said management lawyer Katherine Pollock, partner with the Toronto office of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin.

“Employers across the board are concerned about their liability and (offering training) is a positive and proactive step in doing this,” said Pollock.

Holding separate sessions for managers and employees is preferred.

“The important reason for having separate training is that there is still often a power dynamic that is involved in sexual harassment and so it is counter-productive to (offer training) with all the groups together,” adds John Monahan, associate with Fasken Martineau DuMoulin.

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