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#Me Too at Work – Implications for Irish Managers

by Dr. Clare O’Hagan

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Are you afraid to joke with your female colleagues?  Do you feel unsure as to where the banter stops and the offence starts?

We are in a new era of transparency around sexual harassment, and women of all ages, in all walks of life, are now calling it out.  #Me Too exposed the extent to which women had previously accepted sexual harassment, but it also signalled a tipping point – women were no longer prepared to be silent about it in the workplace, and rightly, are naming and complaining about inappropriate behaviour.

Last October, the #Me Too movement started, it spread virally and demonstrated the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace. While famous cases received media coverage, the level of reporting of sexual harassment in workplaces across the globe by ordinary women, with real stories of sexual assaults and requests for sexual favours was remarkable.  It seemed that few women were not affected by a workplace culture of male entitlement to sexually harass their colleagues.

In March 2018, the WRC awarded a receptionist €46,000 after it found that she was sexually harassed by her boss.  The Adjudication Officer, Marian Duffy said that she was making the maximum award available (2 years salary) in order to ‘be effective, dissuasive and proportionate’ (Deegan, 2018).  This case highlighted that even though the #Me Too movement has quietened down, it is far from over (Sheridan, 2018).  It is reasonable to assume that where sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, there will be greater reporting of it.

As a manager or business owner, what can you do?

First of all, you need to recognise sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is defined as any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015, sexual harassment and harassment in the workplace are against the law. This includes sexual harassment and harassment by co-workers, the employer, clients, customers or other business contacts of the employer, including anyone the employer could reasonably expect the worker to come into contact with (IHREC, 2018).

Create a culture of respect

It is important that employers create cultures based on collaboration, teamwork, and respect.   This means creating an environment where women are encouraged to speak up where they feel victimised and where all employees are encouraged to speak up when they notice a problem. By allowing everyone to feel safe about reporting bad behaviour, the onus is not only on women to step forward and encourages men to speak up, too.

Put policies in place

You need to have appropriate sexual harassment and dignity and respect policies in place, which clearly state that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.  The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform published a Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment and Harassment at Work in 2012. The code states that employers should adopt, implement and monitor a comprehensive, effective and accessible policy on sexual harassment and harassment.

You should have a procedure for dealing quickly and effectively with any incidents that might arise and you need to educate all staff as to what the policies are and why you have them. The sexual harassment policy should clearly state that any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, including communication on social media, which violates a person’s dignity will not be tolerated.

Raise Awareness

Having policies on their own is not enough, you need to communicate them to all employees. Management must be trained to recognise and address harassment when it arises and employees should participate in a training programme on appropriate behaviour for employees and for bystanders.  The training programme can include details of the organisations’ sexual harassment, dignity and respect policies and awareness of gender bias.

Putting these measures in place, ‘walking the walk’ and leading by example will create a culture in which employees feel valued and respected and create a positive working environment.

For expert advice on dealing with any aspect of employment equality, diversity and inclusion, sexual harassment, or any other sensitive issues that may arise in the workplace, call Mary Cullen, Liam Barton or Patrick Foley on 056 770 1060 or email mcullen@insighthr.ie

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