Sexual harassment and bullying within the workplace are common problems that can often be swept under the rug. This article suggests dealing with the issue head on rather than the general handling procedures that can seem distant and an easy-way-out solution, such as generic rules and policies to abide by. It starts from the top in terms of setting the standard, leading by example and creating a culture that is acceptable to be demonstrated throughout the organisation.
Organisations seeking to avoid sexual harassment scandals should rely not on policy or procedure to change their culture, but on the behaviour of their leaders, says Professor Julie Zetler of the Faculty of Business and Economics at MacquarieUniversity.
Zetler, an expert on sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, says that relying on rules and regulations to deal with the problem is “bizarre”.
“Law can only go so far,” she says.
Though it might sound like an appealing solution, sexuality cannot simply be eliminated from the workplace.
“Sexuality and gender are very much part of who we are and our identity.”
As people spend more time at work, they socialise more at work. This blurs the boundaries between personal and private – boundaries that technology blurs further, she says.
Simply making lists of behaviour that is and isn’t inappropriate won’t cut it.
“You can’t just say, ‘this is the line, you’re non-sexual at work’,” Zetler says.
Policies and procedures are well and good, but their success depends on having managers, executives and leaders who have thought through the issues, recognise the complexities and behave accordingly, she says.
The ethics of the business itself and the governance of the business itself are critical.
“It’s really about education – changing values at higher levels.
“Leaders [should] lead rather than just react or just prohibit.
“Once you start prohibiting everything it doesn’t go away, it just expresses itself in other ways.”
Empower your female leaders
Even though many companies now have women in high-level roles, their presence alone is not enough to change an organisation’s culture, Zetler warns.
“Sometimes you think by getting women into these positions they’re going to change the culture… I’m not quite sure that really happens,” she says.
To begin with, the women who secure such positions often embrace the values of the corporation.
“They have to, or they wouldn’t get into the position in the first place – women have to perform better, to do better, to be promoted.”
Once promoted, they are often content to take orders from the top without questioning them, Zetler adds.
“Women tend to be a lot more compliant because they are thrilled they got the job,” and it takes “a brave soul” to speak critically of her peers’ behaviour, she says.
It is up to the employer to not only allow but encourage female leaders to question the underlying boys’ club attitudes and behaviours they encounter.
“Values are only changed at the very top when people believe that there may be a legitimate issue. So it doesn’t work if the values at the top are different to the ones they expect at the bottom.
“What really needs to happen is, the people at the top need to not only put all of these policies and procedures together, but they need to think about it; they need to educate themselves.”
Transparency is key, Zetler says.
“There are two types of transparency. Public transparency… and transparency within the organisation,” she says.
“We expect our public sector to be transparent and accountable because they’re using public money, but with our multinational corporations and private businesses we don’t expect them to be transparent.”
This is problematic, particularly when high-profile sexual harassment cases tend to be settled out of court, which means the business community isn’t getting “a full picture” of what went wrong.
In particular, positive aspects – such as changes that are made as a result of an incident – are not publicised.
“If you don’t know what they are then you can’t learn from it… It ends up with discreet corporations or organisations maybe changing their culture [but] there’s no cross-learning.
“A lot of it is reactive rather than proactive. And then when it gets proactive it tends to be proactive because of the consequences that it could go public.
“It tends to be proactive for reasons that aren’t necessarily about changing the culture,” she says.