Not there yet on harassment

Changing attitudes towards workplace sexual harassment a slow process

Not there yet on harassment

A few years ago, the #MeToo movement gave notice that sexual harassment will no longer be tolerated in the workplace or in society. Past harassers and systemic acceptance of sexual harassment were exposed to scrutiny. Many offenders finally suffered the consequences of their actions and many victims finally got the help they needed.

It was the dawn of a new era in which sexual harassment would be quashed and workplaces would be completely safe from harassment for everyone.

Well, maybe we’re not quite there yet. A recent survey found that more than half of U.S. workers — and nearly two-thirds of women — have been sexually harassed in the workplace. And what is a little alarming is that more than half of respondents say they were fired from their jobs for reporting sexual harassment and 47 per cent say their employer did not offer sexual harassment training. It sounds like many employers haven’t gotten the #MeToo message yet.

Case in point: the mess currently in the news with the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League involving the harassment of a player that was covered up by management. It happened back in 2010, but nothing was done then and several in management who knew about it kept silent about it for more than a decade. It led to the perpetrator going on to sexually assault more people, including a minor.

Now that it’s come out, those involved in the cover-up are losing their jobs and both the hockey club and the league are facing a deluge of bad press from which it will be difficult to emerge for some time. The one good thing about it is that it’s forcing the league and the sport to examine their culture and attitudes, similar to what organizations such as the RCMP are having to do.

While the survey looked at U.S. workplaces, it’s likely the situation is similar in Canada. In fact, the Canadian Labour Congress is collaborating on a national survey to find out how things are these days when it comes to sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. It will be interesting to see how the results compare to the situation in the U.S.

There is some evidence that sexual harassment continues to be a problem in this country as well. Three years ago, at the height of the #MeToo movement, a poll on the attitudes of Canadian workers surprisingly found that one-quarter of men between the ages of 18 and 34 and 15 per cent of men aged 35 to 54 felt it was OK to make a comment about a colleague’s body — only 11 and nine per cent of women in those age groups agreed. Asked whether it was acceptable to give a colleague an uninvited shoulder rub, the proportions were 19 and eight per cent of men, respectively.

While those numbers represent a minority, they still show that a significant number of men are fine with behaviour that is — or at least, should be — considered unprofessional and disrespectful of boundaries in many workplaces.

While comments and shoulder rubs may seem mild compared to sexual assault, they can be indicative of workplace attitudes that can make the subjects of them feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work, as well as lead to more serious incidents. WestJet suffered from this problem with a “frat boy culture” that led to male pilots taking advantage of the power dynamic with female flight attendants, which led to a toxic work environment, sexual assault, victims losing their jobs, and a lawsuit. The RCMP’s problems with a toxic and harassing work environment has been well-documented. The problem isn’t going away quite yet.

One would think that employers would be motivated to eliminate workplace sexual harassment. In circumstances involving higher-ups as the harassers, it’s not surprising that they want to cover it up to save their own bacon — or the more powerful in an organization may think that they’re untouchable. But it’s undeniable that sexual harassment can be damaging to an organization.

There have been many decisions by courts and arbitrators resulting in employers being liable for damages for sexual harassment. But in addition to the direct financial consequences, a business can be hindered by the loss of talent, a toxic workplace, and a damaged reputation. In another U.S. study by Canadian researchers, employers with a higher incident rate of sexual harassment saw an annual shareholder loss of between US$1 billion and $2.4 billion along with declining profitability and increased labour costs.

That’s not really surprising, as a workplace sexual harassment problem can lead to higher employee turnover. And as many HR professionals know, a high turnover rate can be costly — some estimates indicate that replacing a mid-level employee can cost about 20 per cent of their annual salary, while replacing a high-level employee could cost as much as double their salary. That’s some serious coin that an employer that chooses to ignore or cover up sexual harassment may just be throwing away.

The movement to eliminate workplace sexual harassment has been going strong for a few years now. But we still have a long way to go, despite the damage it can do to an employer.

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