Sexualized banter: if it’s unwanted, it’s harassment

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In the Hollywood movie Horrible Bosses, two friends dismiss the claims of the third who says he is being sexually harassed by his female boss. “We should all be so lucky” is the general flavour of the remarks.

However, leading experts warn that what makes harassment distinct from flirting or harmless banter is that it is unwanted, and, critically, makes the subject feel unsafe – regardless of whether it’s a male or female.

If ever HR has been inclined to counsel an employee that their claim of sexual harassment should be ‘taken on the chin’, it may be high time to consider the fundamental meaning of harassment.

Whilst acknowledging that it can be a grey area, Nina Funnell, a sexual harassment expert, said sexual harassment is any kind of unwanted sexual behaviour that either humiliates or intimidates someone, or simply that it is unwanted.

It is up to organizations to set down the values that they stand by. Jonathon Nicholas, CEO of the Inspire Foundation, said the utmost value to install in any workplace is respect. Nicholas doesn’t believe there can be any form of ‘light-hearted’ sexual harassment, in the same way you can’t have ‘light-hearted’ physical or verbal harassment. Sexual harassment has a very specific meaning, and is critically different from flirtation in that it is the difference between engaging in something that is ‘wanted’ and something that is ‘unwanted’, he said.

In addition, Bernie Althofer, managing director, EGL I Assessments, suggests the following:

  • Ensure there is unswerving commitment from the top about creating an understanding and acceptance of an organizational culture that does not condone, accept or tolerate any form of inappropriate workplace behaviours

  • Develop systems and processes that communicate Court, Commission or Tribunal decisions so all employees understand what is and what is not acceptable. Line managers and supervisors play a pivotal role in ensuring that leadership is carried on throughout the organization.

  • Provide regular ongoing L&D for all levels – including the Board, CEO and executives

  • Undertake regular audits and reviews of the policies by testing employee knowledge

  • Ensure that the Board includes an agenda item to address inappropriate workplace behaviours, just as they would do for health and safety

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