Why does sexual harassment still happen?

Some people need anti-harassment education and training

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I find it incredible how in this day and age we are still hearing so many stories of alleged sexual harassment in the workplace.

Just recently we’ve heard several people come forward with allegations that harassment has reached epidemic levels in restaurant kitchens. We also heard about the case of Shauna Hunt, the CityNews reporter who confronted some boorish soccer fans after a Toronto FC game based on their sexist chants (and defence of those chants on camera).

There is also the story of two sisters from Mexico who were recently awarded record damages of $50,000 and $150,000 by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for egregious harassment while they worked at an Ontario fish processing plant as temporary foreign workers. The behaviour in that case included strict house rules at the home they were staying in, alleged sexual assaults and advances towards the older sister and deportation of the younger sister.

One would think people would realize by now that sexual harassment just isn’t acceptable. That applies not only with respect to outrageous behaviour such as making promotions contingent on the receipt of sexual favours or actual physical assault, but also in terms of what is frequently argued to be “friendly banter” such as jokes of a sexual nature, flirting, innuendo or a gentle slap on the behind.

The problem with such behaviour is it is insulting, demeaning and usually unwanted. People have a right to do their jobs without being harassed, ridiculed or made to feel uncomfortable because of their gender, sexual history or sexual orientation — or any other reason, for that matter.

To a certain extent, harassment is in the eye of the beholder, and it doesn’t matter whether the alleged perpetrator believes his conduct is inappropriate — only that the person the behaviour is directed towards finds it objectionable. Yet there is a certain level of harassment no one can consent to.

Maintaining professionalism and decorum

I personally wouldn’t want to work in an atmosphere of extreme political correctness where people are constantly worried the most innocent comment will be misconstrued and lead to sexual harassment allegations. But no one is saying the workplace needs to be utterly clinical and completely devoid of any humour or emotion.

Let’s face it, we’re all human; many people date and even marry their co-workers (my parents, for example). As a straight man, my attraction to women doesn’t stop when I enter the workplace.

However, I am able to maintain a certain level of decorum because I realize certain behaviour isn’t acceptable in the workplace or in polite society in general. Being a married man also tends to make me behave myself.

But if I can maintain that level of professionalism, why is it that so many people have problems doing so? In some cases, I suppose people honestly aren’t even aware their conduct is inappropriate or that others find it objectionable.

However, I also believe some people know full well their behaviour isn’t appropriate. For them, it isn’t about romance, physical attraction or friendly banter, but rather is more to do with dominating and degrading the other person.

We will probably always have a certain number of those types of people in society no matter how hard we try to educate them. But I also believe many people don’t really know where to draw the line when it comes to sexual harassment.

Because of that, I think some people are a little fearful even when it comes to harmless compliments. A few months ago, a female colleague I hadn’t seen in quite a while mentioned I looked like I had lost some weight (which I had), but she actually prefaced the comment by saying something like, “Please take this compliment in a totally non-harassing manner...”

I suspect she was joking to a certain extent (after all, I am an HR professional and she is a lawyer), but I think this illustrates how many people are afraid to say the wrong thing in a work context even if it is totally innocent. It often comes back to whether or not the person is offended by the comment or conduct in question.

But perhaps we should be doing a better a job of educating people in our workplaces — and possibly even in educational institutions — why sexual harassment is wrong and just what is likely to amount to sexual harassment? Clearly, some people still haven’t got the message.

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