Man Touching Womans Shoulder

Red flags of sexual harassment in the workplace

Why all of us need to keep our eyes open for the signs

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Man Touching Womans Shoulder

The steady stream of people returning to the office is sparking disquiet that our increased in-person presence might see incidents of workplace sexual harassment soar.

The growing disquiet comes despite ongoing media exposure of high-profile cases of sexual harassment, which has heightening awareness of the damaging impact of this form of abuse.

The fear is that while public assurances from those in charge suggest much is being done to eradicate sexual harassment in our workplaces, behind closed office doors some bosses are shutting their eyes to the most obvious warning signals.

Sexual harassment is any form of unwelcome sexual behaviour that could make a person feel offended, threatened, humiliated or intimidated. 

It includes but is not limited to catcalling; indecent phone calls, texts, emails or social media posts; indecent exposure; inappropriate comments; and unwanted exposure to sexual content.

Those most likely to be targeted are women; individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer or asexual (LGBTIQA+); and people who do not follow socially prescribed gender roles and stereotypes. 

Workplace sexual harassment can take place during and outside regular working hours, at employer-sponsored activities such training sessions or conferences and during work-related, employee-led social activities. 

While most falsely assume that this form of abuse must come from a colleague, it can come from a supervisor or manager as well as from customers and clients.

During periods of remote work it was the digitised form of sexual harassment that most concerned those in charge. But now the focus has switched back to the types of maltreatment that take place in person.

The impact of sexual harassment

Regardless of whether sexual harassment takes place online or face to face, it has a devastating impact on individuals, bystanders and organisations as a whole. 

Years of research have demonstrated that victims of sexual harassment can experience anxiety, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, regular job turnover and post-traumatic stress.

Regular incidents of this form of abuse tend to poison a workplace culture and can result in a hostile work environment.

All would agree that there is increased awareness of sexual harassment in most workplaces. 

The sharp media focus on high-profile cases of abuse has motivated many organisations to deliver one-time training programs to employees to change attitudes and eliminate sexual harassment.

While there is little doubt such programs are vital to raising awareness, the go-to quick-fix  approach adopted by many organisations falls short of what is required to eradicate the full range of inappropriate behaviours that pervade some workplaces.

If we really want to address the current situation, we need to adopt an “eyes wide open” approach to determine what is really driving the creation of workplace cultures where sexual harassment is rife. 

Some workplaces are more prone to a higher incidence of sexual harassment than others and often share a number of characteristics – call them red flags, warning signs or high-risk factors.

High-risk workplaces for sexual harassment

High risk workplaces turn a blind eye to jokes and banter of a sexual nature even though the behaviour makes some employees feel uncomfortable or intimidated.

These workplaces also tend to have male-dominated leadership teams, are hyper-masculine in nature, tend to be more hierarchical to result in greater potential for abuse of power, and directly or indirectly encourage excessive alcohol consumption. 

It is also the case that workplaces with “high-value” type employees are at high risk. These workers contribute significantly to the financial sustainability of an organisation, but often have little regard to the quality of their relationships with colleagues, believing themselves to be “protected species” and exempt from the usual standards, rules and courtesies. 

Yet perhaps the biggest risk factor is an organisation’s level of permissiveness.  

When employees are hesitant to report abuse or believe their complaints will not be taken seriously and perpetrators rarely face consequences, a message is sent across the entire workforce that bosses are willing to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment.

We need to be “eyes wide open” when it comes to looking out for the presence of high-risk factors than can make a workplace more prone to the toxicity, trauma and hostility and trigger sexual harassment.

While acknowledging the presence of high-risk factors and addressing other red flags will not eliminate sexual harassment altogether, paying attention to these warning signals is a positive step in the right direction to create respectful, safe and inclusive workplaces.