Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Problem for Management


This weekend’s Globe and Mail contained an excellent example of how not to handle a sexual harassment complaint:

RCMP Constable Janet Merlo says she felt compelled to respond when a supervising officer made a sexist remark to her in the company of a high-ranking official from the force.

“You know, if I were to make a complaint, I could probably retire on just what you say to me alone,” she said.

“What was that?” her boss replied. “Did you say you want to retire on me? Does that mean you like it on top?”

It was at this point that the senior RCMP officer in the room interjected.

“If you’re going to talk to her like that, do it somewhere else,” he said to the male officer. “I don’t want to be a witness to stuff like that.”

Honestly, I don’t think I could invent a better example of how not to handle an incident of sexual harassment.  First, the remark by the Constable’s supervising officer clearly fits one definition of sexual harassment, which is remarks of a sexual nature which are known (or should be known) to be unwelcome.  It is clear that the remark was unwelcome, as the Constable communicated as much when she referred to the possibility of making a complaint.  Second, the “high-ranking official” clearly knows that the remark was inappropriate – that’s why he told the supervisor not to speak to Constable Merlo in such a way in his presence.  But while he communicated to both that he understood the remark to be inappropriate, he also communicated to both that it was fine for the supervisor to go on making such remarks, as long as he did it “somewhere else”!  No wonder that the Globe reports that the biggest challenge facing the RCMP’s new Commissioner is the history of allegations of harassment by female Mounties.

As I wrote about workplace bullying in my previous post, workplace sexual harassment is a problem for management.  While I believe that women should be encouraged to speak up in the face of inappropriate remarks, expecting employees to deal with sexual harassment on their own is both unrealistic and an abdication of management’s responsibilities.  As is the case with workplace bullying, how management approaches the problem can make the difference between a flourishing and respectful workplace, and a workplace with low morale, low productivity, high employee turnover and a host of other problems.

Happily, I also have an example of an organization that was more successful in its response to an allegation of workplace sexual harassment.  A friend who was at the time in C-level of a flourishing start-up told me that he had a number of complaints by different female employees about a male co-worker who was making sexually-charged remarks.  My friend spoke to the employee in private, told him that the remarks were inappropriate and unacceptable, and that his behaviour would have to change.  When my friend learned that the remarks had continued and that the employee in question had made no effort to change his behaviour, he felt that he had no choice but to let him go.  It wasn’t easy for my friend to confront the employee.  And it certainly wasn’t an easy decision to let him go.  But my friend really felt that he had no choice.  He realized that if he failed to act, that would have been sending a message to his female employees that he tolerated sexual harassment and that he didn’t care about their discomfort.

Dealing with complaints of sexual harassment probably tops the list of things that a manager would rather not do.  No one looks forward to this kind of difficult conversation, but such conversations can become easier with communications training.  Having a code of conduct or other policy document in place is also crucial, as is making sure that all employees are aware of it.