Tackle sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the work­place

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Lifestyle - Padraig O’Mo­rain Padraig O’ Mo rain is ac­cred­ited by the Ir­ish As­so­ci­a­tion for Coun­selling and Psy­chother­apy

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

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