LONDON – From joking about a colleague’s sex life to casual butt-pinching, businesses are rife with sexual harassment and pressure to eliminate it is mounting — but which behaviors cross the line?
While groping a workmate or showing them porn on your computer may be universally frowned upon, experts say sexual harassment can be difficult to combat because people have different reactions to others’ behavior.
” ‘No’ means no, but there is a lot of room for error and embarrassment before you get to it,” said Martin Sirakov, who works for a health care provider in London.
“As a man, I don’t feel confident about what is socially acceptable and what isn’t,” he said during a recent interview. “It strikes me as a little weird to ask for consent every time you want to make a move like, ‘Can I touch your back? Or put my arm around you?’ “
Allegations of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual behavior have moved millions of women to share their stories of abuse — including in the workplace — on social media with the hashtag #MeToo.
Weinstein has denied having nonconsensual sex with anyone.
Britain’s industrial mediation body, ACAS, recently issued advice on behavior that could be considered sexual harassment, such as unwanted touching, forwarding emails with sexual content or making sexual comments about a colleague’s appearance.
But it is age, not sex, that most heavily influences attitudes, a survey by the British pollster YouGov has found.
While 76 percent of Britons over age 65 saw wolf-whistling as harmless fun, only 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds agreed. Most respondents in the younger age group said wolf-whistling is “sexist and completely unacceptable.”
Key to what constitutes sexual harassment is how a given behavior is perceived, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said.
“A comment on a colleague’s haircut could be innocuous and welcome,” a TUC spokeswoman said via email. “But other comments — such as the size of a colleague’s breasts — can also be perceived as hostile, humiliating and degrading.”
Maisie Greenwood, a U.K.-based translator in her early 30s, said that she can find it “patronizing” when colleagues — men or women alike — affectionately call her “darling” or “love.”
Experts say people are often reluctant to report sexual harassment because they fear they will not be taken seriously, will be branded a complainer, get colleagues fired or lose their own jobs.
Leaders at the top of organizations should set the right tone, said London’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a body for human resource professionals.
“Harassment typically happens from men in positions of power taking advantage of women who are their junior,” it said, calling on businesses to bring men and women together to discuss their perspectives and to encourage people to speak out.
Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, agreed on the need to talk.
“Businesses might think they have a friendly office environment, but it’s their responsibility to genuinely ask: ‘What is our workers’ experience?’ and not be scared of the answer,” she said.
Power differentials are critical, and more vulnerable workers, such as those on zero-hour contracts, are more likely to experience sexual harassment, she said.
“Be it in Hollywood, in law firms or in hospitals, people in senior positions have abused their power because they know they can get away with it,” she said.
“Think about it, have you ever been harassed by a colleague in an ‘inferior’ position?”