What organisations must do to minimise risk of sexual harassment and create safe environments for staff

What organisations must do to minimise risk of sexual harassment and create safe environments for staff

Elizabeth Shaw
Organisations and their leaders are well placed to challenge the systems, structures and cultures that have enabled sexual harassment and sexual assault to be perpetrated for so long. Here’s what they can do, writes Elizabeth Shaw. 

Last week, Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins announced a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

The national inquiry will investigate the drivers of workplace sexual harassment, the economic impact, the current legal framework, existing measures and good practice.

The year-long inquiry is a world-first, following the global #MeToo movement and reports of increased rates of sexual harassment from the Australian Human Rights Commission.

What can organisations do to minimise the risk of sexual harassment occurring and create safe, respectful and inclusive environments for all their people?

Much of the #MeToo media coverage has focused on the alleged acts by the individuals. This accountability is important – to bring the age of impunity to an end and to finally listen to complainants who have been inexcusably dismissed, sidelined or silenced.

However, in moving forward, we also need to focus on the organisational and societal level to make sure we are challenging the systems, structures and cultures that have enabled sexual harassment and sexual assault to be perpetrated for so long.

An anti-discrimination and harassment policy is not enough – organisations need to be proactive in eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace and creating environments which minimise the likelihood of it occuring. Creating a safe workplace is not only the right thing to do – it is critical to business performance.

Tackle gender equality

The first step is tackling gender equality, in the workplace and beyond.

Sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum – it occurs in a society where men represent the vast majority of formal leadership roles, and in a culture which systemically values the contributions of men over the contributions of women. These power dynamics are fundamental to understanding sexual harassment – which often has more to do with asserting power than with sex.

Organisations need to take active steps to increase gender balance in leadership (which for the vast majority of organisations, will mean more women in senior roles) to challenge power dynamics, role model different approaches to leadership and help create a more inclusive culture.

Organisations also need to do more to examine the gendered differences in office behaviour, and in what behaviours are valued and rewarded.

As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant have pointed out, men are more likely to contribute with visible behaviours whereas women tend to engage privately in time consuming activities (such as capability development and mentoring).

Challenge gender stereotypes

Secondly, organisations need to actively challenge gender stereotypes. There are often discussions about how gender stereotypes can hold women back – for example, stereotypes about roles in male-dominated industries, or about how women are expected to behave. But gender stereotypes are deeply limiting for men too, teaching men that success means power and authority, leadership means confidence and aggression, and that vulnerability or empathy is weakness.

Organisations can play a positive role in a number of ways, including:

  • encouraging and enabling men to balance their work with greater domestic and caregiving responsibilities;
  • valuing and rewarding communication, collaboration and inclusion;
  • ensuring both men and women take on the ‘office housework’;
  • facilitating increased gender balance in male or female dominated areas of the business; and
  • challenging language and behaviour that promotes toxic masculinity.
Review how complaints are handled

Thirdly, in order to help rid workplaces of sexual harassment, it is important organisations review the way they handle sexual harassment complaints and support their people who are affected, informed by the feedback of those who have experienced the process. For so long, the voices of those who have experienced sexual harassment have been silenced – due to fear of reprisals, experiences of not being believed, or by complaint processes that are known to go nowhere, exposing the victim but having no bearing on the perpetrator.

Complaint processes need to be managed by trained staff, in a way that minimises harm to the affected employees and reflects a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment. While complaint-handling is often a reactive exercise, information about the types of harassing behaviour or patterns of misconduct can be used to inform future prevention strategies.

An increase in reported sexual harassment can be a sign of improvements in handling complaints, reflecting increased confidence in complaint handling systems, people, and processes.

Timely complaints enable organisations to act quickly to deal with perpetrators and keep their people safe.

More accurate data on sexual harassment and misconduct helps organisations better understand trends, and measure the effectiveness of policies and interventions over time.

Address bystander action

Fourthly, organisations need to consider how to drive bystander action and intervention to call out sexual harassment. Often people experiencing sexual harassment are in vulnerable or perilous positions due to power differentials and perceived or real threats of retaliation. Organisations cannot solely rely on the courage of victims to come forward and make a complaint if they really want to stamp out unacceptable behaviour.

Creating a culture where people are encouraged to speak up if something is not right and challenge unacceptable behaviour will help to protect the organisation and its people.

These interventions will be further encouraged when employees see reports of unacceptable behaviour swiftly dealt with.

Organisations can consider mandating bystander intervention – requiring employees to report unacceptable behaviour that they become aware of – as another way to create a collective responsibility for employee safety and decrease reliance on victim’s coming forward when they don’t feel able to do so.

Walk the talk

Finally, organisations need to make sure they walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Sadly today, there are still organisations that have people whose power and success are seen to compensate for failings in other areas, making them somewhat untouchable.

High performance cannot ever compensate for, or excuse, sexual harassment.

Culture and values have never been more important – in brand, in the market for talent, in the retention of employees and in creating a high-performance culture which sets everyone up for success. Organisations cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

Elizabeth Shaw is an Associate Director in KPMG’s Management Consulting practice, and the former President of UN Women Australia’s National Committee. She is one of the AFR’s 2016 Women of Influence.


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