5 Risk Factors for Workplace Sexual Harassment

Josh Hay

close up portrait of a serious business woman in gray suit standing in the city

You’ve read the news, heard the stories, and you’re likely aware that sexual harassment happens more than we’d all like to admit. Have you taken an honest look at your own workplace? Don’t get caught being complacent, sexual harassment can happen anywhere and no organization is immune. By raising your awareness and understanding of the risk factors and types of environments where harassment is most likely to occur, you can take the first steps towards prevention.

Here are 5 risk factors to look out for:

 

1. Having high numbers of people who are new to the workforce.

New employees are often also young teenagers or university students. However, this isn’t always the case. People who have recently immigrated or entered the workforce for the first time later in life are also considered “new”.

These people may feel unsure and insecure about reporting incidents against more senior employees. They may also not fully understand what constitutes as harassment. It’s important to empower and educate people to ensure they don’t become easy targets for harassment.

2. Lack of diversity among co-workers.

Workplaces that have little cultural diversity can be at a higher risk for harassment. Those in the majority may feel a sense of power over those in the minority. Ironically, having a very diverse workplace can also be a risk factor as there are so many different perspectives co-existing.

In either case, creating a workplace that is respectful and embraces differences is key. Encouraging employees to learn about each other’s culture is a great way to build understanding. Understanding leads to empathy and compassion, which diffuses disrespect and conflict.

3. Customer service/client satisfaction industries.

The customer is not always right. When the customer’s needs are placed ahead of the employee’s, the potential for harassment can increase. There can be significant pressure on the employee to allow the customer to behave improperly in order to get the tip or sale.

Employers need to set limits on what behaviours will be tolerated from customers. It’s also important to allow employees to implement those limits. They should be able to walk away from a situation that is inappropriate, even if it means the customer will be unhappy.

4. Employees who work alone or in isolated environments.

Anytime someone is working alone, they are easier targets for harassers because the risk of being discovered is minimized. Examples are janitors working the night shift, housekeeping staff in hotels, or late-night convenience store attendants.

Whether or not the harassment is done by a co-worker, if it occurs while the employee is working it is the employer’s responsibility to address the harassment. Strategies to address harassment include: equipping employees with tools to know how to protect and defend themselves, working in pairs or small groups, ensuring employees have access to methods of getting emergency help (e.g., cell phones), ensuring their work area is well lit, etc.

5. Cultures that tolerate and/or promote alcohol consumption.

Alcohol inhibits judgment, so harassment is more likely to take place when alcohol consumption occurs among co-workers. Many of our workplaces tolerate and even promote alcohol consumption under certain circumstances (e.g., happy hour drinks after work, holiday parties, celebrating new achievements, taking clients out, etc.). These events are important and alcohol doesn’t need to be banned from them, but it should be consumed responsibly.

Drunkenness is never an excuse for harassment. Whether an event is at work or merely work-related, if harassment occurs, it’s considered workplace harassment.

All workplaces are likely to have some of these risk factors. This list is meant to bring awareness to the potential areas of concern in order to proactively address problematic areas. Where do you see your workplace reflected? If you have more than one risk factor, or all of them, it’s a good indication that you should put some preventative measures in place.

If you’re an employee, approach your leadership to make them aware of risk factors that you have identified. If you’re a leader, don’t sit back and wait for harassment to be reported. Show your employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated by addressing any risk factors before they become problematic.

All employees are entitled to a workplace that is free of harassment and where they feel safe and respected. Take action! It’s everyone’s responsibility.

Heidi Grieser, Co-Founder & Director
ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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