Sexual harassment has been all over the headlines in recent months. The Harvey Weinstein scandal demonstrated that abuses by powerful men against vulnerable and until-now-voiceless employees, colleagues, and acquaintances are not a thing of the past. In the aftermath of the Weinstein revelations, accusations have come out against a large number of politicians, celebrities, sports figures, and business leaders, ranging from inappropriate text messages to groping, to sexual assault, and rape. Clearly, there is a spectrum of behavior that is inappropriate in the workplace, and this can cause some confusion for employees.
Being unaware of what constitutes sexual harassment can have unintended consequences. For example, Claire Cain Miller writing for the New York Times in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal notes that, “women are less likely to build [mentorship] relationships, in part because both senior men and junior women worry that a relationship will be misread by others.”
Fear of innocent behavior being misconstrued as sexual harassment can create awkward workplace interactions in general; however, a more serious issue is the potential for subtle harassers to claim ignorance. If accused of harassment for relatively subtle behavior, they may hide behind the ambiguity of an unclear harassment policy.
For these reasons among others, it’s extremely important that all employees in your organization are aware of your sexual harassment policy. That policy should have clearly defined behaviors as well as consequences that are enforced, and employees should have human resources they can turn to if any clarification is needed on what is and is not appropriate behavior.
Sexual harassment has no place in the workplace. Period. Blatant examples of sexual harassment are obvious to most; however, some employees may be unclear on where the line is between permissible and inappropriate conduct. In order to both reduce instances of harassment and to avoid the “I didn’t know it wasn’t OK” defense, employers should promote awareness as a key element of their sexual harassment strategies.