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Time to Redefine Sexual Harassment: Impact of #MeToo on Corporate Culture Sexual harassment is not just limited to women; men have been the victims too. But, usually, women have been the major target of sexual misconduct at work

By Khalil Zafar

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The sensitive subject of sexual harassment at work is leading mainstream conversation and organiational HR policy agendas. This doesn't just mean for entrepreneurs who run large multinationals, Fortune 500 enterprises and media platforms; but the conversation now is trending in small businesses in each and every industry segment.

As the upsurge of #MeToo stories have come to light over the past couple of years, it's become agonizingly vivid that whatever organisations are doing to try and prevent sexual harassment isn't working. Nevertheless, the bright side is that both men and women are now more confident and more self-aware of their rights and self-respect. The only difference is men underestimate sexual misconduct more than women as per recent surveys. When asked what proportion of women had experienced any form of sexual harassment, both male and female respondents across the US and 12 European countries, including Great Britain, underestimated the levels experienced by women. The situation, however, is totally different in South Asia and Middle East where women are more prone to discrimination and sexual misconduct.

A vast majority of companies say they have sexual harassment policies in place and many of them do provide anti-sexual harassment training by allocating some budget on this. Some offenders have either been fired or fallen from grace (includes both men and women). And, yet more than forty years after the term "sexual harassment" was first coined, it remains a tenacious and unescapable delinquent in practically every sector and in every industry of the business world. It incurs economic, physical, and mental damage, keeping people — especially women — out of power or out of professions completely. It also results in huge financial losses (billions of dollars in lost productivity, legal settlements, and insurance).

Sexual harassment is not just limited to women; men have been the victims too. But, usually, women have been the major target of sexual misconduct at work.

So, what does work? Or, might?

Unfortunately, there's very little evidence-based research on strategies to stop or address sexual harassment. After #MeToo, there has been an increase in filing of complaints related to sexual harassment.

Theoretically, sexual harassment is measured along three key dimensions: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. Gender harassment comprises undesirable behaviour and actions against people of all gender that is not automatically sexual in nature, but may contain things like a manager making sexist comments, telling unsuitable stories, or exhibiting sexist content. Unwanted sexual attention comprises co-worker or managers behaviours and actions such as staring, smirking or unwanted/not approved touching. Sexual coercion includes bribing or pressuring people of both genders to engage in sexual behaviour in return for a promotion or favour (forced action).

Organisations' management, especially HR should also pay consideration to gender harassment, including sexual bullying and sexist comments about women. Surveys suggest that women who have been empowered by #MeToo to call out incongruous behaviour have faced more opposition among coworkers. It is significant that companies are conscious of this, as a continuous display to gender harassment can be just as detrimental to women as the most egregious forms of sexual harassment.

Offering behavioural training that is concentrated on this issue, as well as on micro aggressions and insentient prejudice, could be useful not only for boosting civil behaviour but also for permitting peers and leaders to step in when they see bullying or harassing behavior in the workplace. It can be extremely nerve-wracking for a woman to stand up to sexist comments when they are directed at her, but it can be a lot easier for a bystander to step in and diffuse the situation.

Regrettably, a large number of employers throughout the world have still failed to implement the best and most operative procedures to avert sexual attacks and workplace harassment. The usual old-fashioned training that is concentrated on legal definitions and injunctions of unlawful conduct is essential, but inadequate to thwart large conclusions against a company and to prevent future misconduct. Similarly, written HR policies are often excessively legalistic, not spread efficiently, and poorly executed.

Distinctive corporate reporting and investigative policies and procedures lack decisive constituents that would make them most real. Harassers, especially "superstars" inside an organisation, are frequently sheltered rather than disciplined or penalised, and individuals who report the delinquency of those employees may suffer improper vengeance. Consequently, employees may be frightened to come forward and corporate leaders, specially the HR, are uninformed of the full magnitude of sexual harassment in their offices.

To stop sexual harassment successfully and to inhibit its reappearance, employers need to create a culture of reverence and inclusivity, where people feel safe when reporting misbehaviour, and where there are strong and instantaneous penalties for having involved in any such harassment. Human resources should train not only itself but also other managers the right skills concerning how to respond to harassing behavior in its early stages, before it escalates to the level of illegal conduct, and how to respond when an employee makes a complaint. Non-managerial employees need to be clearly informed orally as well as in writing which behaviors are deemed insupportable in the office, and they must be taught skills on how to interpose when they perceive or witness harassing behavior. Organisational leaders need to clearly and continually set out their values and anticipations and hold people (whether male or female) liable when they violate those expectations.

Khalil Zafar

Senior HR and management consultant


Khalil has over 10 years of rich and progressive international experience in strategic HR, training, leadership development, talent acquisition, organizational renewal, business process automation, performance management and organizational/strategy development.

Currently he is working as senior manager HR/ Partner-Organizational Renewal at Straxecute Consulting (UAE & Pakistan). He is also a professional trainer/instructor who has not only delivered trainings to corporate clients, but has also taught students at higher education level to help them develop their management knowledge and skills.

 Khalil has completed a M.Sc. in Organizational Psychology/HRM, along with a master's degree in mass communication. He is also an IRCA certified internal auditor for quality management systems.

He has taught people from different nationalities including India, Pakistan, Philippines, Lebanon, Jordan, Cameron, China, Scotland and Canada.  


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