Where do we draw the line on workplace sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a major issue that should be addressed globally. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a major issue that should be addressed globally. FILE PHOTO | NMG  

Cases of sexual harassment in the workplace have been on the rise in recent months. Despite the increased awareness, only a few workers know where the line is drawn between casual employee relationships and sexual harassment incidences in the workplace.

Lately, the headlines have been abuzz with numerous sexual harassment scandals like the case involving Hollywood award winning actress Lupita Nyon’go. On October 2017, Lupita wrote in the New York Times how Harvey Weinstein - an accomplished Hollywood’s producer severally made sexual advances to her in form of private dinners and massages in order to make her a star.

Last Wednesday, NBC News fired the “Today” show host Matt Lauer, for what its chairman termed “inappropriate sexual behaviour.” This is after three women accused him of inappropriate sexual contact.

Recently, Walt Disney animation executive John Lasseter had to take a leave of absence following numerous complaints from staff about ‘unwanted hugs’ and disrespect of their personal space.

Earlier this year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a detailed blog, expressing her disappointment with the HR department for failure to take action against her manager who had been sexually harassing her since 2016. Her allegations were dismissed by HR who defended the manager’s actions behaviour on the grounds of him being a high performer.

Closer home, there was a major incident at Ushahidi, a pioneer of Kenya’s tech scene, where the board tried to water down rampant sexual harassment experienced in the organisation. The executive director, who allegedly went on to apologise to his accuser, was later fired following public outrage after the release of an audio clip.

Clearly, sexual harassment in the workplace is a major issue that should be addressed globally. With America leading the way with the #MeToo campaign, there is a lot to be addressed on this subject matter and we can’t afford to look the other way.

All these incidences prove that sexual harassment is here with us. To effectively address sexual harassment, we must first define it by outrightly pointing out what the law says about it.

According to Article 2 Section 6 of the Employment Act, an employee is sexually harassed if the employer or a representative of the employer or a co-worker, directly or indirectly requests the employee for sexual intercourse, sexual contact or any other form of sexual activity that contains an implied or express promise of preferential treatment in employment.

Further, threat of detrimental treatment in employment or threat about the present or future employment status of the employee can also be deemed to be sex harassment.

Also, if an employer or a representative of the employer or a co-worker uses language whether written or spoken of a sexual nature can also be misconstrued as sex harassment.

Whether your company is big or small, there is need to have a HR policy that addresses sexual harassment. Furthermore, if strong leadership is in place with leaders who lead by examples, then sexual harassment will be an issue of the past.

Organisations should also strive to have a support mechanism where employees can bring up personal issues and get fully attended to.

Nevertheless, although it’s well defined in the employment law, sexual harassment is still a grey area. There are some loose ends that should be addressed. This can be well achieved through staff sensitisation during trainings and seminars to shed more light on the law of sexual harassment.

To sum it up, sexual harassment is a pervasive issue that requires extra stringent measures to curb.

Perminus Wainaina is CEO and managing partner, Corporate Staffing Services Ltd.