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Thoughts for Startups: What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

In her 2017 TED talk, Gretchen Carlson described sexual harassment in the workplace as “an epidemic across the world.” It’s now 2021, and industry continues to grapple with this issue. So, it seems we are dealing with at least two global epidemics at this time, COVID-19, and sexual harassment. Part of the problem is that the concept of sexual harassment is not as easy to define as we originally thought. The Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (ACAS) defines it simply as “unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature.”

This sounds like an overly simple definition. But in its simplicity and open-endedness lies its effectiveness. At least, that’s what Eleanor Manley thinks. Eleanor, whom we guested on our podcast recently, is the CTO and co-founder of Metta Space, an app that seeks to address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. She has done considerable research into this issue, including poring through numerous legal documents that deal with this matter. She says that most of these legal definitions tend to be too specific in describing what sexual harassment is. Ironically, this results in many loopholes that allow perpetrators to get away with many things.

“What’s good about that (ACAS’s) definition is that it’s broad enough to capture a lot, and that’s what’s most important,” says Eleanor. She says that sexual harassment is not a single, specific act. “Sexual harassment is a spectrum,” she clarifies, “any definition needs to be able to encompass that spectrum.” Eleanor thinks that the definition for sexual harassment needs to apply to any act that makes someone feel uncomfortable with the implied sexual intent. Then specific examples need to be provided for people to visualise.

But why so much ado about sexual harassment in the workplace? Why should businesses, and startups in particular, be extra vigilant against this odious situation happening in their own workplace? For one, EU states (and most likely, the UK will also follow suit) will be ordering companies to put in place an anonymous reporting mechanism for whistle-blowers. This encompasses a broad range of actions and behaviours, including harassment.

Eleanor also shares a startling fact. “By allowing and perpetrating these environments (where sexual harassment is allowed to take place), you’re losing money,” she declares. She cites a Deloitte study that showed several Fortune 500 companies were losing over USD 6 million a year EACH due to sexual harassment cases. These companies had to deal with issues such as high employee turnover and losing great talent. They also had to face an increase in absenteeism and decreased productivity because people were no longer comfortable working with colleagues who were harassing them. And much managerial time was lost because they had to spend their time and energy figuring out how to deal with this issue. These companies lose as much as 3 days of productivity out of a 5-day workweek!

These are Fortune 500 companies, some of the largest, most successful, and most established corporations who pull in hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in revenues and profits. Just imagine how devastating this would be for a startup that’s struggling to get itself going. It would be nothing less than disastrous.

So, where should startups start? People need examples to visualise, suggested Eleanor Manley, and so let’s look at ACAS’s examples as a starting point for what constitutes sexual harassment. According to ACAS, the following actions or patterns of behaviour can make work colleagues uncomfortable because of implicit or explicit references to sexual intent.

  • Flirting
  • Making gestures or remarks about someone else’s body, clothing, or appearance
  • Asking someone else questions about their sex life
  • Telling sexually offensive jokes
  • Emailing, texting, or messaging sexual content
  • Displaying pornographic images or content
  • Sexual assault or rape
  • Touching someone against their will

Any startup should take the dangers of workplace sexual harassment seriously and take the appropriate steps to protect itself from this taking place. It’s morally wrong, of course, and that alone already makes it reprehensible. But even if we overlook the morality question, the tangible damage to business should be compelling enough for startups to take seriously.

Written by our Head of People, Mustafa Shreet.

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