Tackle sexual harassment in the workplace
When the furore about sexual harassment has abated, I think one thing will have changed and one thing will not.
What will have changed is that we will have a new awareness of the breadth and depth of the problem, many people will feel safer about speaking out and others will be more ready to believe them.
What won’t change is the location of most sexual harassment, namely the workplace – or wherever people who have a working relationship.
If the enhanced consciousness about sexual harassment is to lead to positive results, then these positive results have to happen within workplaces.
This is easier said than done. Many workplaces, and the health and safety authority, have guidelines and codes of practice about sexual harassment and bullying which often go hand in hand.
Quite often organisations are ineffective at dealing with these issues when they arise. They may get investigated but even if a finding results in favour of the target of this misbehaviour, that does not necessarily bring a sanction that satisfies the aggrieved person.
Essentially, many organisations are afraid of these complaints. They were not set up for the purpose of dealing with complaints – they were set up to provide goods or services, and dealing with bullying and harassment is outside their area of expertise.
The laudable resolve to combat sexual harassment and bullying will need quite a lot of detailed work to translate into practice.
My impression is that allegations of sexual harassment get a more robust response from organisations than non-sexual bullying allegations. That said, as we have seen in recent weeks, the fact that misbehaviour is known about doesn’t mean that it will be dealt with in an effective way or at all.
US research suggests that when more than one person in an organisation makes a complaint, and they do so together, the outcome is far more likely to favour them than if a person complains on his or her own. But many people who are bullied or harassed are, indeed, on their own.
They could go to their trade union if they have one, but in many workplaces that isn’t an option because of what could be called the partial de-unionisation of work in Ireland. Many employers just won’t tolerate unions and many young workers have only a hazy idea of why it might be a good idea to join one.
So what is to be done for those who are on their own in confronting their harassment? I suggest the Government considers strengthening the role and increasing the resources of its own bodies such as the Workplace Relations Commission which already adjudicates on work-related complaints.
The first point of contact for most people making a complaint would be the commission’s website, which is not user-friendly. The section on how to make a complaint is difficult and off-putting. A form, with notes, for complainants to send to a person complained against, runs to 13 pages with notes.
By the way, not all allegations are well founded and the rights of those complained against have to be respected, but all this needs to be done in an accessible, user-friendly way.
I expect the Workplace Relations Commission would love to have the money and resources with which to make its website and all its systems user-friendly – and that is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be done to translate today’s ire into tomorrow’s action. In other words, anger isn’t enough. Tweets won’t get things done – though the firestorm they stoke will, hopefully, impel the political system to take action. Getting things done takes quiet, detailed work, far from the glare of publicity.
That’s what has to happen next to make a better future for people who are bullied and harassed when all they want to do is go to work.
Tweets won’t get things done – though the firestorm they stoke will, hopefully, impel the political system to take action