As the #metoo movement has gained ground, we have witnessed a seismic shift in attitudes to what behavior is acceptable in the workplace. It would certainly not be fair to say that before #metoo that sexual harassment was unrecognized though. On the contrary, sexual harassment in the workplace has been recognized in legal terms since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the USA.
What has changed is in the way that younger generations have come to view what really matters in the workplace. They have grown up with the expectation that men and women are, or at least should be, equal before the law. Unfortunately, the recent 32 million dollar sexual harassment settlement by Fox News celebrity Bill O’Reilly is evidence enough that sexual harassment is an ongoing and very serious issue in workplaces around the country.
Types of sexual harassment
In the most fundamental terms, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances towards an individual. It is typically divided into three types:
- Physical: This is the type most commonly associated with sexual harassment and usually constitutes unwanted touching, such as rubbing up against someone, hugging someone, placing arms around someone, and so on.
- Verbal: When a colleague gives you cute nicknames that are sexual in nature, this can be harassment. When a colleague insults you or uses sexual slurs around you, this can also be verbal sexual harassment.
- Visual: Most commonly, this can be a person exposing themselves in the workplace to another person and making them feel uncomfortable or threatened. It can also be as subtle as a staff member drawing suggestive pictures of another staff member and passing it around for laughs.
What are the ethical implications?
There are a number of ethical implications around sexual harassment in the workplace that make it complex:
- The reasonable person test
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with sexual harassment is the fact that men and women may have markedly different views on what constitutes harassment. This is according to the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons.
The complexity here is that applying subjective values to sexual harassment can make a mockery of the law. In order to deal with this in harassment cases, courts can apply the reasonable person test. In this test, an ideal model of what constitutes a reasonable man or woman with reasonable values is used to determine the threshold at which a specific behavior is considered sexual harassment.
- The responsibility of the employer
An employer has a responsibility to prevent sexual harassment in their workplace. This means enforcing a strict code of conduct, modeling good behavior, and possibly implementing a whistleblower hotline for anonymous reporting of unethical behavior. However, there is state-base variation on what companies are required to do in this regard. For example, Californian law requires that employers are liable for harassment by their managers.
- The hostile work environment
The broader implication of sexual harassment in the workplace is that it can create a hostile work environment for some employees. This may lead to loss of productivity, high staff turnover, legal and financial ramifications, and brand damage.