Everything else.. On Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Understanding the costs and seeking help

On Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Understanding the costs and seeking help

2019 Jul 11

Unwanted sexual advances, abusive emails and obscene gestures and remarks are part of a silent plague that continues to corrupt workplaces and perpetuate gender inequality. Feminist scholar Catherine Mackinnon defines ‘sexual harassment’ as the ‘unwanted imposition of sexual requirement in the context of a relationship of unequal power’.


Sexual harassment in the workplace occurs in a number of different ways, some of which are quite subtle but others that may be overtly direct. Some examples of sexual harassment include:


  • Unwelcome physical contact and sexual advances such as inappropriate touching (including pinching, rubbing, patting, rubbing up against someone)
  • Sharing inappropriate, lewd and/or suggestive emails, letter, notes, etc.
  • Demanding or requesting for sexual favours
  • Displaying inappropriate sexual posters/images in the workplace
  • ‘dirty’ jokes and/or sharing sexual anecdotes
  • Incessant staring in a sexual manner


… or any inappropriate or unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature.


A study that focused on workplace sexual harassment in Sri Lanka revealed that most women were not sufficiently aware of the various forms of sexual harassment that occurs in different domains of daily life. While most of them acknowledged the widespread problem of sexual harassment in public transport and other violent incidents like rape and assault, the general lack of awareness on the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace were noted. In fact, while a lot of publicity and awareness raising is generally given to severe incidents of harassment like rape, issues like sexual harassment in the workplace have largely been swept under the carpet. The practice of ignoring inappropriate advances, lack of awareness regarding one’s rights and the general taboo culture of not speaking freely about sex and assault have also exacerbated the situation.


Harassment in the workplace is not something that only women face. Commenting on the issue, Clinical Psychologist, educator and member of The Ohana Project Shalindi Pandithakoralage pointed out that “young men too report being subjected to the same. Blackmail is one strong trend we see in cases where male clients are sexual harassed. And because it is not seen as a norm like with women, many men suffer in silence. When they open up many make them feel like they are less masculine or as if they should be glad that they get that sort of attention (from a woman).”


Forms of Sexual harassment in the workplace


1. Quid Pro Quo


This form of sexual harassment that literally translates to ‘this for that’ in Latin refers to demanding or requesting sexual favours in exchange for work benefits such as a promotion, higher salary, etc. In other words, the perpetrator, usually the employer, holds the woman to ransom. A subtle bribery of sorts. If a woman disagrees to performing such favours, there is a high likelihood that she would be subject to a demotion, dismissal, a tarnished reputation or difficult working conditions.


It may be challenging to spot someone who has fallen victim to quid pro quo harassment. Most often, the employee who has been subject to this form of sexual bribery may be hesitant to report the issue due to a number of reasons such as fear of retaliation or harm and worries over others losing respect for them.


Other employees, however, can help by looking out for red flags that show that a fellow employee is being sexually harassed in the workplace.


Look out for a combination of signs that include favouritism, rumours about a relationship between an employer and a subordinate, demotion due to no apparent reason, unusual over protection of an employee, etc.


Apart from closely monitoring possible signs of a quid pro quo harassment, employees can also encourage open dialogue and transparency among each other and HR and also suggest the implementation of a mechanism that enables anonymous reporting. If you notice that a fellow employee is distressed or shows signs of friction with someone who is in higher authority, talk to them and possibly direct them to someone impartial who can handle the issue.


2. Hostile Working Environment


A hostile working environment would mean frequent inappropriate sexual advances, requests, comments, etc. made to an employee. Examples of a hostile working environment may include persistent unwanted request (i.e. asking an employee out on a date), sexual innuendos and anecdotes, lewd jokes, unwanted physical contact and/or any verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.


Unlike quid pro quo harassment, a hostile working environment does not necessarily influence an employee’s prospects for promotion, salary increase or other work benefits. This type of harassment can occur within any level of the hierarchy and is not limited to an employer and a subordinate per se.


Once an incident of harassment has been reported or bought to light, employers must take immediate action.


Understanding the costs


Most often, sexual harassment can have a serious effect on women who fall victim to such harassment as well as other women who observe such happenings in the workplace. Many women find themselves trapped, especially when they are hesitant to report a situation. With the pressure and stress that comes with attempting to ignore, dismiss or overlook incidents of harassment, employees may eventually show signs of poor performance in addition to poor mental and physical health.


As for emotional wellbeing, sexual harassment can result in a loss of confidence and significant stress and anxiety.


The emotional consequences can also translate to a loss of physical wellbeing such as a loss of appetite, weight loss or gain, sleep disturbances and other serious problems like high blood pressure. 


An intimidating work environment that does not take sexual harassment as a serious offence will also prompt women to leave the workplace and even discourage them from seeking jobs in the worst case.


When cases of sexual harassment in the workplace are ignored, women are discouraged from being assertive and a culture of corruption and lack of transparency are bound to emerge in addition to perpetuating the toxic image of women as sex objects.


On a larger scale, the widespread issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has also impacted the global economy. With problems such as absenteeism, employee turnover and low morale, companies can suffer huge blows to their reputation as well as other legal costs due to sexual harassment.


Combatting the issue


Since most sexual harassment cases occur due to an abuse of power, companies should ensure that the systems and structures put in place do not allow for those in power to exert the power unchecked. An anonymous complaint mechanism and adopting a clear sexual harassment policy are some of the ways in which workplaces can tackle the issue.


It is also the responsibility of employers to take complaints seriously since tolerating unacceptable behavior would not only lead to a loss of reputation but also create an atmosphere of distrust and intimidation in the workplace.


Seeking help


1. Reach out to a mental health professional.


Many young women seek help from psychologists because of the impact this type of harassment has on their mental wellbeing.


They find it difficult to be assertive against the aggressor because they have usually been made to feel obliged by the aggressor. For instance, a new employee may be given more opportunities and exposure in the hopes of the employee reciprocating in a sexual nature. So when advances are made, the employee may feel bad to stand against the person’s actions in case it makes them seem ungrateful for what they have received.


2. Encourage open conversations and transparency. Reach out to a colleague in a non-judgmental manner.


Drawing from her experience, Shalindi says “I find that many people still judge and blame victims of such harassment. Only if we are non-judgmental, will people be open and feel safe to share their experiences.”


*This article was written with help from The Ohana Project; a community of mental health professionals who aims to ‘leave no one behind.’


The Ohana Project is always on standby to lend a helping hand to anyone seeking treatment for mental health. They can be reached on 0774979641 or theohanaprojectsl@gmail.com.


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