Sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be discussed

by Jan 18, 2024

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a difficult topic we need to discuss

Admitting your company needs to start a conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace is the first step to improving a toxic culture.


When I have attempted to start conversations with CHROs on the highly charged topic of sexual harassment I have truthfully met with very mixed results. Over the years I have worked with and discussed the issue of the way women are treated in the workplace, with probably hundreds of HR professionals. We all know that the problem is endemic in our organisations. Yet despite the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movements, where celebrities are speaking up and putting their voices behind the problem, it seems more difficult for the average woman to come forward. It is then even harder for business and HR leaders to talk about it.

Even though it’s a professional requirement and legal obligation, there is also a reluctance on the part of HR to recognise there could be a problem within their organisations.  Worse still, with reports of NDAs,  HR are emerging as being untrustworthy and even colluding in any cover-ups. It not only creates a toxic culture of collusion, but also has far-reaching implications on the physical and emotional well-being of the target.

3Plus can help your company Manage Unconscious Bias.


Why HR won’t respond

I have held many successful workshops on sexual harassment.  I have invited the HR Directors of every company where I have coached women who had experienced sexism or sexual harassment in their companies. The response was zero to minimal.

So what does this mean?

  • My invitation went to spam. Always a possibility.
  • They don’t like me. Ditto? …Naah!
  • They feel uncomfortable talking about it – I get it. Difficult conversations are never easy, particularly when it is around the imbalance and then abuse of power.
  • It is so deeply embedded in the culture that people don’t recognise it and genuinely believe it’s not part of their own business. I understand that too. It means being finely tuned to what’s going on and reading between the lines, which is challenging. We all have to recognise and deal with our own unconscious biases.
  • They are removed from the pain points. Let’s be direct. The target demographic for sexual harassment tends to be younger and therefore more junior women. Sexism is rife at every level, although senior women are less likely to experience sexual harassment. It’s a power thing. Men, and especially women, leaders need to go down to junior levels and find out what is going on in the trenches of their organisation.

The most common view that if incidents are not reported there is no problem. Wrong! What I frequently hear is “we had one problem x years ago, and we dealt with it.”  No! I am coaching women in your organsiation who claim it is prevelant.


Sexual harassment in the workplace

Leadership and perception

The lack of HR input adds to the confusion. It contributes to the ideas held by many that HR is part of the culture of enablement, and therefore the problem. Every leadership team should by now have had a frank dialogue, no matter how difficult, about sexual harassment as it relates to their company culture. Every HR professional should be raising the issue with their leadership. If organisations are not open about a policy of zero tolerance on these issues, it will their impact employer brand.

What is emerging is a wide range of responses to inappropriate behaviour, sexism, and harassment. YouGov research identified generational differences. Older women are more resistant to bad or inappropriate behaviour than younger generations. Customised perception plays a key role. “Boys banter” to one woman is highly offensive and disturbing to another. Their interpretation becomes their reality, even though the perpetrator may be unaware of the nature or extent of the offence.

HR Policies

Although the majority of companies have statements against sexual harassment the way HR investigates complaints may vary. Factors such as the size of the organisation. the credibility of the accuser’s story, the seniority and value of the alleged perpetrator, plus the company’s culture all play a role. If the accused adds a high level of business value the issues, frequently will be brushed under the corporate carpet. Perhaps HR will have a “quiet word.”  Some companies have clear laid out reporting and investigation process where they interview multiple parties to determine the facts.

But in other organsiations where the policy is weaker, HR may pass the issue to the legal department.  In some cases if the accused is senior and the complaint serious enough, HR might engage an independent facilitator to assess the situation for the Board. I have done this myself a number of times.

If in doubt, initiate a dialogue

It’s important that organisations not only make clear their zero-tolerance policy, but also run training initiatives to raise awareness and consciousness. Very often team members don’t realise that something is sexist and potentially offensive. They especially don’t understand when certain offences are illegal.  They also at the root of workplace trauma. I meet women today who still well-up discussing workplace experiences of thirty years ago.Policies on their own have little impact if those involved as bystanders and targets have no strategies for dealing with instances as they arise.

They might also be oblivious to the impact. It’s only through changes in our daily behaviour that our workplace cultures will shift. If there is doubt about any instance then there should be a candid discussion around that uncertainty. Is it or isn’t it enough to initiate a dialogue? This requires a speak-up culture within a team and agreements about what is acceptable and what is not. This can be hard to achieve in many organisations.

It is only by having difficult conversations on the topic that emotional intelligence and empathy can be learned and fully understood. Then company culture will change.


 Learn how to deal with sexism and harassment in the workplace. Contact us now.


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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