March 6th, 2018

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We have all seen, through the recent media attention, the impact that incidents of sexual harassment can have on your workplace.  The consequences are far reaching, affecting not only the individuals involved, but your employment brand and business overall.

Whilst it is easy to think that sexual harassment is isolated to one or, at most, a few “bad eggs”, it could in fact be a symptom of a much bigger problem in your workplace.

What’s the link with Employee Experience?

By looking at your leadership, people operations, the physical environment and the tools, particularly the data, you have available to you, you may be able to prevent, if not eliminate, behaviours like sexual harassment in the workplace.
The cornerstone of employee experience is leadership. Your leaders set the tone for the organisation. Good leadership makes for great employees, resulting in positive and appropriate workplace behaviours. In the absence of good leadership however, poor behaviour can creep in. And if leaders tolerate poor behaviour, the line between what is acceptable and what is not quickly becomes blurred.

Your leadership also has a direct influence on whether employees are willing to speak up about sexual harassment, regardless of whether they are on the receiving end or are a witness.  If your leaders don’t role model appropriate behaviours and don’t challenge poor behaviour, an employee will be left wondering if they will be listened to if they do speak up.  If they feel that their concerns won’t be acted on, chances are they won’t feel confident in coming forward and letting you know what is happening.  Conversely, an employee who has a strong leader is more likely to have the courage to challenge inappropriate behaviour as soon as it happens, because they know their leader will have their back.  They are also more likely to raise it quickly, so it can be dealt with effectively.

Your people operations provide the foundation for preventing sexual harassment. Strong values that are truly embedded in your organisation in terms of what your leaders say and do, is the first step.  Do you have a code of conduct for your workplace?  Do you have clear, easy to read, enabling policies that are aligned with your values so employees know what’s okay in your workplace and how they can seek help if they have concerns? When it comes to sexual harassment, every employer should have a zero tolerance policy.

This should also be reinforced through your on-boarding and employee training programmes so both employees and managers know what sexual harassment is and what to do if they witness it.  It is also important that your managers know where they can seek help if they have concerns about any of their employees and are not sure what to do.

Your physical environment is also critical for preventing sexual harassment.  An environment that fosters a sense of community, that allows employees to collaborate and support each other is likely to be far more effective at preventing sexual harassment from occurring than one that allows employees to operate in isolated silos.

Finally your tools and technology will help you get ahead of any incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace. There is a wealth of data available to you that will assist you identify whether there may be an issue. Employee absenteeism, particularly sick leave; performance issues; complaints or concerns raised internally, but also from your clients or customers; exit survey data and employee engagement can give you valuable insights into what’s happening across the organisation.  And when you shift from looking at the data at an individual perspective to looking across teams and at the supervisory level, you should be able to identify pockets of the organisation that are outside the norm, which could be an indication of something going on.

In my experience, someone does not wake up one morning and decide to harass another person, usually they have gotten away with less offensive behaviour over a long period of time, and what is considered “normal” and “appropriate” behaviour shifts for them, based on their experiences.  By focusing on creating a great employee experience, supported by strong leadership, operations, environment and tools, I believe behaviour like sexual harassment is less likely to occur.

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