The sexual perils of the workplace

Be warned if your screensaver features something more salacious than flying Windows logos. It could cost you.

Be warned if your screensaver features something more salacious than flying Windows logos. It could cost you.

One man recently had to pay $500 compensation to a woman sitting nearby after she repeatedly objected to a screensaver she found offensive and his surfing for pornography.

In another case, the Human Rights Commission (HRC), which deals with sexual harassment cases, says suggestive emails constituted part of one man's behaviour a woman found offensive. The employer had to pay the woman $7000 for “humiliation and loss of dignity”, plus $810 legal costs and $1735 for counselling.

Before another case of a manager choosing to “spend more time with the family" is reported, it's worth revisiting the issue of sexual harassment.

The information technology industry seems no worse -- or better -- than average, apparently accounting for a similar proportion of cases as there are IT workers to other employees in the country. And while the web and email give more opportunities for harassment, the HRC believes the harasser will do it with or without new technology.

The HRC defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated or significant enough to have a harmful effect on the person who is the subject of the behaviour”. It can include: offensive sexual remarks/banter or jokes; persistent touching in unwelcome ways; harsh treatment after turning down sexual advances; regular hassling for a date; being shown sexually offensive pictures/visual imagery; and unwelcome sexual attention.

HRC spokeswoman Miriam Bell adds that a complainant has to make it clear she or he do not welcome the behaviour. All parties may be comfortable with some of the described activities.

Employers must have policies and procedures to deal with the issue or they could be liable for legal recourse, even if they have no part in or knowledge of cases. Many IT firms have such policies. For David Allen, general manager of Sabre NZ, for instance, it is a case of being prepared and informing staff how the problem can be handled.

Bell says having effective policies in place to prevent harassment makes good business sense as it means creating a friendlier, safer workplace. This lowers staff turnover, which saves on recruitment and retraining costs and brings higher productivity, greater staff loyalty and lower sick leave costs.

The HRC says analysis of five years of cases suggests sexual harassment often involves an imbalance of power. Some 72% of employment-related cases featured the harasser being in a more senior position that the complainant. An age disparity often shows up, with the harasser on average being 17 years older than the complainant, while more than half the complainants were aged 20 years or younger. Sexual harassment is man-against-woman in 90% of cases. Male-to-male harassment accounts for 6.4% of cases and female against male or female less than 4% combined, the HRC says.

In the three months ending September, the HRC received 48 "formal" complaints that led to investigation or conciliation, plus a further 107 complaints on the HRC information phone line. But while people are more aware of the issue, Bell says it is hard to judge whether the problem is increasing.

A HRC campaign launched last month received requests for 650 sexual harassment prevention employer kits, on top of 5000 it had already sent out. The HRC also has sexual harassment prevention trainers to advise on information and training.

The issue, like most areas of human interaction, is complex and harassment is not always clear-cut. A selection of stories reported on Britain’s Ananova.com suggests cultural norms are important.

  • A Sydney lesbian received $A4500 in damages for sexual harassment after a butcher sold her a dog bone shaped like a penis. The owner of the shop also had to pay $A25,000 court costs.
  • Italy’s highest appeals court ruled that a pat on the bottom is not sexual harassment as long as it is “isolated and impulsive”.
  • One in 20 young people working abroad are sexually harassed, with boys twice as likely to be hassled as girls.
  • A Japanese man filed for unfair dismissal, claiming his boss told him he looked like his first girlfriend and sexually harassed him.
  • A Canadian man was jailed for 10 months for making obscene gestures with his tongue at a woman.
  • British lawyers warned firms to have dress codes, saying letting workers strip off in hot offices opens them to harassment lawsuits.
While these tales might seem potentially amusing, the HRC says sexual harassment is nothing to joke about.

“The issue comes down to good manners and respect for others," Bell says. "People should treat other people in a way that they expect to be treated themselves -- and unwanted and inapproriate sexual behaviour doesn’t tend to fit into most people’s expectations for themselves.”

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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