Understanding sexual harassment in an increasingly diverse and complex world

Guest Blog by Valerie Nichols, Executive Consultant at Hemsley Fraser


Most of us are aware that grabbing someone’s crotch or buttocks is highly inappropriate and is likely to be considered sexual harassment. That’s one end of the spectrum. How about a friendly pat on the back in acknowledgement of a job well done? Sexual harassment or not? How about telling someone that they look good? How about a ‘wolf whistle’?


The extent of sexual assault is highlighted by the recent surge in ‘Me Too’ activity, in which women and men around the world, who have been sexually harassed, are sharing their stories across social media using the hashtag ‘metoo’. This – and the publicity around high-profile accusations – has generated conversations in public and private forums about what constitutes sexual harassment and what can and should be done about it.



A starting point to this conversation is to recognise that the concept of sexual harassment is a social construct. Unlike some questions (is it raining?), where there is a clear response, the question of whether something is harassment is based on social practices and understandings that can, and do, vary from generation to generation and from culture to culture. It’s also important to realise that some actions or language might not rise to a level that the law sees as sexual harassment, but that might rise to a level that is socially unacceptable.


While we understand that sexual harassment can involve women harassing men or same-sex harassment, the concept has its roots in men harassing women. In the latter half of the last century, women began entering into employment in fields that had been traditionally restricted to men. Sexual harassment was sometimes committed to make women feel unwelcome in the non-traditional, male-dominated job. In other words, the purpose of sexual harassment had little, if anything, to do with sex. It wasn’t a matter of men being incapable of controlling themselves or that women were “asking for it”. It had to do with power, dominance, and a clear level of contempt for the person being harassed. And that’s the first point to remember when addressing the questions at the beginning of this article. Efforts to minimise offensive language or actions by referring to them as “locker room talk” or by telling the person being harassed that they’re overreacting or need to “toughen up” are simply ways to avoid dealing with the inappropriate use of power and the refusal to treat all others with dignity and respect.


The best possible perspective is to stop thinking about how to avoid allegations of sexual harassment and to begin thinking about how to accord dignity and respect throughout your organisation. This is key, because in today’s cross-cultural, multi-generational, multi-gender workplace, you not only have to remain within the legal boundaries. You also have to remain within the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable.


Most people begin with good intentions – they try to provide that dignity and respect – but they become confused about where the boundaries lie. Much of that confusion stems from cultural and generational differences.


Cultural differences can be highly specific or can be more ambiguous. In some cultures, for example, there is a specific societal prohibition against a woman being touched in any way by a man who is outside her immediate family. In other cultures, no such prohibition applies. More ambiguously, anti-sexual harassment legislation makes it clear that in some parts of the world, exemplified by the European Union, there is an underlying concept of the importance of dignity – of treating others with respect. In other countries, including the United States, the focus is on defining rules and of delineating the penalties for breaking those rules.


Beyond cultures, there appear to be generational differences. A recent global study by research firm YouGov found that women of different generations were likely to respond differently to the questions at the beginning of this article. For example, women over 65 were significantly less likely to view a wolf whistle as harassment (less than 25% felt it was inappropriate) than women between the ages of 18 and 24 (over 75% of whom felt it was inappropriate).


Even within genders and generations, there are differences of opinion. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll of 3,000 adults in the United States, these differences were clearly demonstrated. The poll presented the respondents with a number of scenarios and asked whether they constituted sexual harassment. 41 percent said that telling ‘dirty jokes’ constituted harassment, while 44 percent said it did not. 44 percent said that unwanted hugging was sexual harassment and 40 percent said that it was not. In both cases, it appears that around 15-20 percent of those polled just didn’t have an opinion.


So, faced with the extent of confusion around sexual harassment, what is HR to do? Here are three guidelines which can help:


  1. Start with the assumption that ANY touching in the workplace is a bad idea. If a handshake – or an ‘air kiss’ on each cheek – is a cultural norm, be aware that there may be cross-cultural interactions and your employees should adjust their actions accordingly.


  1. Apply a civility code. Employees should ask themselves “would I (say this/do this) to my boss, my mother/father, or my son/daughter”? If the answer is no, they shouldn’t say or do it.


  1. Encourage employees to consider the underlying feelings of their colleagues, subordinates and managers. Are they dealing with someone whose body language makes it clear that they prefer a more formal interaction or do they appear to be a ‘hugger’? Behaviour should be adjusted accordingly.


Cultural differences are challenging. For example, the ‘thumbs up’ gesture that commonly expresses satisfaction or approval, is understood in Australia, Greece and the Middle East to be a rude gesture that means nothing of the kind. The only way that employees will know if that pat on the back or a thumbs up to acknowledge a job well done is okay or not is to be acutely aware of the responses to their words and actions.



Valerie Nichols is an Executive Consultant at Hemsley Fraser, the learning and development specialist. She can be contacted via valerie.nichols@hemsleyfraser.com



Author: Editor

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