Sexual harassment in the workplace is more prevalent than businesses may expect and includes any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which offends, humiliates or intimidates. This includes unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing, suggestive comments or jokes and sexual advances. Sexual harassment may also be a form of violence against women. As a consequence of sexual harassment, victims may suffer significant physical and psychological effects including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
Workplaces must have strong policies against sexual harassment that include complaint mechanisms and disciplinary sanctions. Access to remedy is a critical element in addressing human rights violations. Therefore, sexual harassment policies should provide for disciplinary measures and other remedies if complaints are proven. Sexual harassment policies should be clear, strongly enforced, focus on the harassing conduct and be monitored periodically for effectiveness and relevance.
Sexual harassment policies should be drafted in gender-neutral language, as either the victim or perpetrator may be a man, woman or non-binary person. In addition, sexual harassment policies should not focus on the conduct of the victim as triggering or provoking acts of sexual harassment. This type of victim blaming is discriminatory and creates stigma around sexual harassment complaints. This may in effect reinforce a workplace culture of sexual harassment rather than prevent it.
Depending on the relevant legal framework, employers may be responsible for acts of sexual harassment against employees, so it is imperative that workplaces have strong sexual harassment policies to avoid liability. In managing sexual harassment in the workplace, employers should be mindful that they may have other obligations relating to privacy concerns and potentially defamatory comments. Therefore, complaints should be kept confidential, and victims should remain anonymous to other workers and alleged perpetrators.