Employment partner Juliet Carp suggests that everyone, including managers, colleagues, parents, teachers and children, can take practical steps to help prevent sexual harassment.
There is clearly a problem with sexual harassment. The sheer numbers and awfulness of recent accounts make that clear. But the dialogue focuses to a large extent on the past and what other people have done and should do. “Aren’t they awful”, “something should be done”, “they need to listen”, “things need to change”. We’ve made a start by recognising that there is a problem and that something needs to be done. Let’s take the extra step of looking at what we ourselves can do to help. Most of us could do more, and we could do it quickly. Large numbers of people taking small steps can make a huge difference to outcomes, particularly where what is needed is a change to attitudes.
First, we need to take the focus off celebrities for long enough to think clearly about how these things begin in our own lives. Sexual harassment, sexual assault, bullying, stress at work, personality ‘clashes’ and many dismissals have roots in lack of concern for others. At heart is the difficulty we all have with putting ourselves in another’s shoes. We all choose to do the wrong thing sometimes. Sometimes we don’t understand the full extent of the impact on others. The reality is that serious sexual assault is not common in the workplace, but the drip, drip of day-to-day harassment - not just sexual harassment but all kinds - takes its toll on very large numbers of people. Name-calling and belittling, insulting or hurtful behaviour has no place in a modern workplace. It can make people miserable and it can make people ill.
Sometimes there is no wish to even try to think of others or do the right thing. For those situations, raising awareness of potential consequences for the perpetrator - or people or things they care about - can be helpful. How many UK managers have really taken on board that they can be held personally financially liable for sexual harassment at work: not just their own harassment but for failing to prevent other people from doing it?
It can be hard to differentiate between victim and perpetrator, not just because facts are often blurred, but because people are not all good or bad. Sometimes we help, and sometimes we make things worse. The challenge is to stop and think about our contributions, positive and negative, and to work out what we can personally do to make things better.
Here are some ideas to start us off. You might not like some of them, but perhaps the suggestions below will help prompt better ideas that work for you.
Examples for managers
- I will never shout or swear in the office or tell sexist jokes.
- I will treat everyone, no matter how junior, with the same courtesy.
- I will make sure we have a formal equal opportunities policy and that this includes clear guidelines on relationships and behaviour at work. I will support the policy and comply with it myself.
- I will make sure that all employees participate in equal opportunities training at least once a year.
- I will not allow any sexually explicit material to be visible on anyone’s desk.
- I will make sure at least one person does not drink at every office party, takes responsibility for monitoring inappropriate behaviour, and, if necessary, intervenes.
- I will not use business funds to support excessive drinking.
- I will talk to each of my reports and make sure they know I won’t tolerate harassment, and that they can talk to me if they have concerns.
- I will talk to X about their behaviour.
- I will bear in mind that junior members of staff may mimic my behaviour. I will make sure my example is positive.
Examples for work colleagues
- I will refuse to attend any work function held at a strip bar and I will explain why.
- I will never send an email comment, joke or photo on my office email or in the workplace about anything sexual, sexist or derogatory.
- I will never swear in the office.
- I will take down my X photos.
- I will not make sexist jokes in the office, even ‘harmless’ ones.
- I will tell X that I don’t like their Y jokes next time, and every time they tell them.
- I will treat everyone with courtesy and respect, even if I don’t like them.
- I will recognise the impact of flirting and innuendo in the office on junior colleagues.
Examples for parents and family
- I will not use sexist or sexual language in front of my children.
- I will check the parental controls on all my children’s devices by the end of the week.
- When I see material that is not appropriate for young children displayed in shops, on public transport, and in other public places I will say something, every time.
- I will not allow my children to play sexually explicit computer games.
- I will discuss my concerns about TV, video games etc. with other parents when my children go on play dates.
- I will encourage my children to respond positively to correction by other members of my community.
- I will ask my older children to help me set a good example to their younger siblings. I will encourage my children to listen to and support each other.
- I will support other parents whose children are affected by harassment and I will encourage my children to support their friends, and those with no friends, at school.
- I will not use defeatist language like “what can you do” or “you can’t fight it”: I will remind myself that we can.
Examples for teachers
- I will never “walk by” when I hear sexist or sexual comments, including in the canteen or playground.
- I will always make sure the “victim” knows what I have done to deal with a problem.
- I will talk about the age of criminal responsibility with my year 4 children and I will make sure parents are aware of the potential consequences for their own children.
- I will encourage children who have experienced harassment or bullying at school to talk to their families about it, and I will promptly inform families of problems if and when they arise.
- I will be mindful of the age of the children in my care and I will not allow them listen to music with inappropriate lyrics in school.
- I will recognise sexual assault as a potential crime when committed by children on children, and I will report it.
- I will not expect any child in my care to put up with behaviour that I would not tolerate myself.
- I will take responsibility for checking the suitability of all the books and materials that I give to children.
- I will not allow children to access smartphones in school.
- I will not allow children to wear inappropriate clothes in school.
- I will encourage my class to think about how they can help others.
Examples for children
- I will stop calling my friends, siblings etc. names when I can’t win an argument.
- I will tell my friends that I don’t like it when they call girls ‘slags’, or call other children names, every time they do it.
- I will say something if X picks on Y.
- I will take responsibility for looking after younger children at my school.
- I will say hello to children who look lonely.
- I will ask my teacher what the school is doing to make things better and how I can help.
- I will ask my friends what they can do to help and try to work with them to fix things.
- I will never put an embarrassing or indecent photo of someone else up on the internet.