Sexual harassment and assault in the workplace


A number of employees are sexually harassed or assaulted in their workplaces every day. Sexual violence in a working environment ranges from seemingly harmless and sometimes unintentional physical or verbal conducts to mostly intentional conducts that result in sexual assault. Since this has become a big issue that employees nowadays have to deal with, conversations on exposing the behaviors that constitute workplace sexual violence, issues on consent, effects on victims, and how to prevent this form of abuse is important and this is what this article is about.

What constitutes sexual harassment in a working environment include requests for sexual favors, unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome sexual comments, and other improper physical conduct or verbal utterances that are sexual in nature which makes the recipient uncomfortable. Typical examples of sexual harassment in the workplace include but not limited to making sexual remarks about an employee, sending sexual texts, or asking for sexual favors in exchange for opportunities and benefits in the workplace.

On the other hand, sexual assault is any form of sexual behavior or actual contact which occurs without the recipient explicitly giving his or her consent or permission to such a physical sexual contact. Examples of sexual assault are rape, inappropriate touching, fondling, etc. Sexual assault is actually a bodily violation of the victim. It is a gender-neutral violation which can be perpetrated by persons in higher-authority or lower-authority or even in the same grade in the workplace. It can be a one-time thing or occur in multiple episodes. Sexual assault and harassment have a tendency of affecting the victim in the form of finding it difficult to work, feeling intimidated, and even affecting a work-life balance.

Primarily, for a conduct to be considered as sexual harassment or assault, it must be unwelcomed. Also, a sexual predator in the office can be of any age, gender, or position in the firm. Therefore, in as much as most perpetrators are males and the victims are females, it can also happen the other way round. Similarly, unlike other forms of abuse, a perpetrator does not necessarily have to be a person who occupies a higher position on the organizational hierarchy than the victim. Therefore, the perpetrator can be a superior or a subordinate. Furthermore, unwanted sexual advances if not checked can easily graduate from harassment to a full-blown assault. This possibility is there because if the offender is in a superior position and through the abuse of power continues with unwanted sexual advances whiles the victim feeling intimidated and afraid of losing his/her job gives in, a lose-talk concerning how a subordinate’s breasts looks appealing can easily lead to the breasts being grabbed one day.

Admittedly, it is somehow difficult to estimate the exact number of sexual harassment and assault cases in the workplace in Ghana per day or week or month, or year. This is due to the fact that most victims do not come forward which could be because of the fear of losing ones’ source of income, depression, misplaced sense of guilt, or even shame. Although some victims have taken legal action against the perpetrators, majority of the victims suffer alone and continue to endure harassment from bosses and colleagues continually.

What causes this deviant behavior in a working environment is complex because the specific root cause is difficult to point out. It could be from ones’ orientation or even culture. That is, if you are raised in a family where the privacy of the opposite sex is not respected, you might end up harassing a colleague in the workplace sexually without you even knowing. The root cause could also be blamed on politics, a form of socialization, or even predatory sexual conducts tolerated by employers. Regardless of what causes it, one thing to note is that the victims of sexual violence in the workplace normally know or are familiar with the perpetrators.

Although some occupations are more prone to sexual harassment or assaults, it is definitely not restricted to some industries but can happen in almost any working environment. That is, so far as there are men and women with loose morals and lack of personal discipline, this form of abuse will continue to thrive in the various workplaces.

Due to the difficulty in landing a job in Ghana, sexual harassment or assault is one of the least talked-about subjects, meanwhile, it is gradually becoming a sort of a societal problem that has significant consequences for the victims, the companies, and the country as a whole. It is almost becoming a normal phenomenon for an employer to ask for sex in exchange for employment. Admittedly, the least said about sexual harassment the best. It has also become normal for male colleagues to analyze female counterparts sexually right in front of them without shame or fear. Even if they are not talking, the ridiculous stare alone says a lot (ridiculous stare is when you catch a person looking continuously at certain parts of your body which makes you very uncomfortable and even after he/she realizes that you have caught him/her staring, continues to stare).

One of the biggest misconceptions is the debate about whether the victim contributes to being sexually assaulted or not. There should not be any debate about this because sexual assault is an opportunistic crime, which means that the victims do not in their wildest dreams believe the rapist or the offender who is normally a person they know, respect and trust will ever do that to them. Therefore, in the context of it happening in the workplace which this article is concentrating on, it becomes a break of trust and a shock to the victim who usually holds the perpetrator in high esteem.

What Constitutes Sexual Violence in the Workplace

There are so many things we take for granted and behavior we consider as not harmful but constitute sexual harassment. These include telling stories and engaging in conversations about sex with a party to the conversation not comfortable with the topic. Another is commenting on someone’s appearance which makes the recipient uncomfortable. One thing we must get as men is that it is not every compliment that is welcomed. There are too many compliments on female colleagues’ skirts and dresses and most of the time the ‘complimenter’s’ eyes will be hovering solely on the ‘complimentee’s’ buttocks or breast. This ‘sizing’ up of the females actually objectifies them and they do not want it. Similarly, another harassment behavior is making sexist comments, playing music with sexually explicit lyrics to the hearing of others, using vulgar language, and making jokes about sex. If the other gender who is at the receiving end of these sorts of conducts likes and welcomes them, then it is fine. However, if the advances and behavior are welcomed, then it qualifies as sexual harassment.

In spite of this, other actions that also constitute sexual harassment are: spreading rumors about someone’s sex life; looking at someone up and down whiles the conversation just necessitates you look into the person’s eyes or look away; pressuring a subordinate for sex; requesting for sexual favors; a boss asking a subordinate to go for dinner with him/her or any other non-official meeting with the subordinate feeling uncomfortable but cannot say; following someone around and refusing to take the lead when the person stops for you to go ahead; unwanted touching, patting, or tapping of a work colleague’s face, hair, back, hand, shoulder, etc. without the recipient’s consent; two consenting adults touching each other inappropriately in front of others in the working space; lying about sleeping with a colleague in the office or telling the truth about sleeping with the person without the person’s consent for you to tell others; and displaying pornographic materials at a spot where others can chance upon such as a poster, a desktop screensaver, etc.

Despite the above-mentioned actions, there are others too that are very subtle and mostly are not considered but do fall under the same umbrella of sexual harassment. That is, elusive behaviors such as: the circulation of nude or shirtless men or women in the workplace; sending an email, message, or text that is sexually suggestive; frequently complimenting another employee on his/her appearance; forcefully or persuasively making an unwilling viewer watch sexually explicit contents; trying to engage in conversations which demands the other person to talk about his/her sex life unwillingly or unknowingly; passing a comment on the attractiveness of another gender in front of others; demanding hugs or repeatedly hugging subordinates or colleagues; and, giving gifts that are sexual or private in nature such as sex toys or underwears.

So far, all the behaviors already talked about in this section constitute sexual harassment. What then is considered as sexual assault? Although, the first and obvious form of sexual assault is rape, there are other actions that fall under this same category. They include: unwanted physical contact, touching, fondling, grabbing, patting, or tapping another person’s buttocks, breasts, pelvic part, etc.; forcibly kissing another (on the mouth or cheek); a victim ‘willingly’ having sex with a person who is in the position to offer her/him a job; and, any attempt to commit any of these stated acts. It should be noted that if a job seeker engages in a sexual act with a prospective boss because of the job, it qualifies as a sexual assault. That is, if these two consenting adults would not have had sex if a job offer was not on the table, then an assault has taken place.

Conditions Under Which a Person Cannot Give Consent

The first condition under which a person cannot give his/her consent to any of the above-mentioned behaviors to negate the tag of sexual harassment or assault is when the person is intoxicated (from either alcohol or drugs). Sleeping with an office colleague, superior or subordinate who is drunk above the permitted alcohol-intake permissible to drive, is rape. At that state, he/she is not himself/herself to give consent for a sexual act. If the person regains consciousness and does not agree with the seeming consent he/she gave whiles intoxicated, it means he/she has been raped. Therefore, people should be extra careful at end-of-year office parties, which can sometimes provide a breeding ground for people to get drunk and make stupid decisions which they will live with its consequences for the rest of their lives.

Similarly, if a person is in a sedated state, either from a sleeping pill or a sedative drug, that person cannot give his/her consent for sex. Hence, deciding to touch a colleague inappropriately at the sickbay with the victim’s seemingly giving his/her consent is not a smart decision. Similarly a mentally unstable, whether temporary, permanent, or occasional, cannot give a sexual consent. In the same manner, since far-reaching emotions such as extreme sadness or happiness can result in temporary insanity, a celebratory party for a promoted colleague or at the funeral grounds of a colleague’s close relation cannot be a conducive place for a sexual relationship because there is a higher possibility the victim will regret afterward. Lastly, lack of physical resistance does not necessarily mean permission to go ahead. Also, submission due to blackmail, threat, force, or fear does not constitute consent. This leaves the perpetrator fully open to prosecution.

Effects of Sexual Harassment and Assault

At the office, an employee who experiences sexual harassment is more probable to report symptoms synonymous with stress, anxiety, and even depression. The victim may also experience weight loss or gain, problem sleeping, and headaches. If the harassment goes unchecked for a long time, it may even result in posttraumatic stress disorder. These resulting conditions are being supported by a number of studies that have indicated that sexual harassment leads to a number of negative mental health effects. These effects could still be felt many years after the harassing incident. Even though as compared to sexual assault, sexual harassment seems to be a bit less severe, it can negatively have a significant psychological effect on the victim’s work behavior and general well-being.

Aside from the psychological effects, it has also been found that the risk of sexual harassment victims experiencing long-term physical health challenges is higher due to the repeated nature of this form of violation. In addition, harassment could result in an increment in workplace accidents due to distractions of harassed workers, especially those who work with dangerous substances and machines. It is an undeniable fact that it is not only the victims who suffer but the other employees who witness their colleagues being harassed experience their fair share of the trauma that sexual violence in the workplace brings.

Similarly and more seriously, sexual assault also results in depression, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, headaches, posttraumatic stress disorder, somatic symptoms, drug or alcohol abuse, gynecologic complaints, irritable bowel syndrome, sexually transmitted infections, rape trauma syndrome, and unwanted pregnancy. The physical conditions in most instances can be treated, but the emotional effects last for a very long time.

In terms of the effect on the company itself, if sexual harassment or assault takes place in the workplace, it can result in huge costs to the firm. Aside from the bad press that the firm gets, the firm has to deal with legal costs, lower productivity, employee turnover, lower employee motivation, disruption in team spirit and morale, and lower commitment. The ultimate disadvantage to the firm is the reputational harm it brings which can be irreparable. 

How to prevent sexual violence in the workplace

After pointing out the devastating effects of sexual harassment and assault, it is important to know how to prevent this sort of abuse in the workplace. Technically, the best way to prevent workplace sexual violence is for workers to have self-control, respect themselves and the next person and go to work with the objective of doing exactly why they were employed. However, as human beings, self-control is a very subjective matter. Hence, it is important to discuss what the organization should do to prevent it.

First of all, for companies to prevent sexual violence among their employees there should a comprehensive corporate policy against sexual assault and harassment. This policy should outline the exact behaviors (some of them mentioned in this article) which should not be accepted and permitted. The policy should further state the reporting procedure, the responding process, and most importantly caveats that assure confidentiality of the whole reporting process. It is vital to note that there should be several ways of reporting sexual violence in the workplace, hence a comprehensive view of the reporting procedure. Also, for this policy to work and cause fear in prospective perpetrators, there should be stated harsh disciplinary actions for this offense and a ‘zero tolerate’ stand should be very clear.

Management and owners of companies should make sure that disciplinary actions against perpetrators are swift, consistently applied to all, and proportionately harsh according to the severity of the offense. In a nutshell, to prevent sexual violence in the workplace to a higher extent, companies should not only adopt and keep anti-harassment policies but communicate these rules to all the workers and assure confidentiality in terms of reporting. Furthermore, simply terminating the appointment of a sexual workplace offender, which is the harshest disciplinary action the company can take, does not bring closure to the victim in most cases. Therefore, companies should also make sure assaulted or harassed employees who take a step further by reporting the case to the police do not get victimized or fired but should know that it is within their right. If need be, depending on the severity of the action, the company can even lead and support the victim to make a police report.

Emmanuel Oppong Peprah

About Author

Emmanuel is  a researcher who is very passionate about employee issues. You can correspond with him through [email protected].

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