Though most people are rather uncomfortable talking about it, many have witnessed or experienced first hand inappropriate office behaviour. Unfortunately, the delicate nature of this problem means are unwilling to engage it when it crops up in their own workplaces, leading to damaging myths and preconceptions. Here are some common misconceptions about sexual harassment along with the facts according to the CCMA.
Sexual harassment is more or less flirting
A common misconception about sexual harassment is that it encompasses any sexual behaviour in the workplace. In fact, what defines it as harassment is the fact that it’s unwanted. What this means is that if colleagues are willingly engaging in flirtatious and suggestive behaviour, it doesn’t count as harassment – but it’s still very unprofessional, at any rate.
Sexual harassment is physical
Sexual harassment can actually be physical, verbal or even non verbal. This means that even “subtle” things like suggestions, hints, innuendos, jokes, insults, compliments or comments, questions about a person’s sex life or whistling can all be regarded as sexual harassment. Indecent exposure, sexual gestures or displaying explicit materials in the office are all non verbal examples of harassment.
The idea that sexual harassment is purely physical often means that victims feel they don’t have a legitimate complaint against other behaviours, even though they are also sexual in nature and unwanted.
Sexual harassment is between colleagues
The popular notion of sexual harassment usually involves workplace peers, but it can happen between any members of an organization. Strip searches conducted by or in the presence of the opposite sex are unlawful, as are employers who offer special treatment for sexual favours. In this case, both those who are being manipulated and those excluded from the favouritism can be said to be affected by the harassment.
Sexual harassment only happens to women
Though it may be true that women are somewhat more vulnerable to workplace harassment, the truth is that anyone can be harassed. Unfortunately, harassment directed to men is not taken as seriously, and so employers need to be vigilant that they are not writing off complaints with “it’s just a joke”.
Sexual harassment is a private issue
The onus is on every workplace to create a safe and comfortable environment for its employees, and so they need to have a sexual harassment policy in place. Contrary to popular belief, sexual harassment issues are not best resolved privately and are in fact the concern of everyone in the workplace. Every employee and client has the right to dignity and therefore it’s everyone’s business to maintain an appropriate atmosphere.
Do you feel like you’ve been sexually harassed? Depending on your workplace’s specific culture and atmosphere, people may be more or less comfortable with sexual jokes or innuendos, however if an employee feels uncomfortable, its rests with management to address their concerns seriously.