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How To Speak Up When You See Workplace Harassment

Here’s how to deal with untoward behaviour in the office…

From being told what to wear to putting up with the lads’ ‘banter’ and all of the dark moments in between, women have come a long way since entering the workforce.

But even 10 years ago, incidents like a tap on the bum might have caused an internal eye roll from victims but were swept under the rug. Nowadays, inappropriate banter, touching and more sinister scenarios are simply unacceptable. But the dark ages aren’t totally behind us.

Statistics show sexual harassment is still a big problem in Australian workplaces. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) 2018 workplace sexual harassment survey reported one in three Aussie employees had endured sexual harassment at work over the past five years. That’s compared to one in five in 2012.

What’s worse, Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says people are afraid to speak up with only 17 per cent making a formal complaint.

While the #metoo era is shining a light on what it is to be a woman in today’s workforce, it seems women and men are still finding their voice when it comes to speaking up about untoward behaviour while on the job - especially when people in power are the alleged bullies.

New book Whisper Network is a scarily relatable tale of workplace harassment with a strong lesson around not ignoring things you don’t want to hear in the workplace.

The novel tells the story of three female lawyers Sloan, Ardie and Grace struggling with their inappropriate male boss, Ames. The all-too-familiar ‘inequality on the corporate ladder’ plays a vital character as Ames is up for a big promotion, despite being the centre of continuous sexual harassment rumours. The stakes are raised when our antagonist makes an inappropriate move on a colleague and the three female employees decide to take a stand.

Sound familiar? According to AHRC data, this storyline isn’t rare. Even Whisper Network’s author Chandler Baker has experienced behaviours exposed by the book while working as a corporate lawyer. Head Psychologist at The Indigo Project Mary Hoang says while we’re making good strides to confront corporate culture built for men, such systemic change takes time. “The best advice would be to start cultivating a healthy, stable and confident sense of self - so that who you are is not easily shaped and shifted by the words, behaviour and opinions of others,” Mary tells HuffPost Australia.

“Be clear to yourself on what your boundaries are – what you’re comfortable putting up with, and what you’re not. And practice communicating assertively – so that you can speak firmly and clearly about your needs and concerns.”

And while our characters in Whisper Network fought back in their predominantly male work environment, speaking up is not always easy. Complaining through the official channels might feel like it will set off a catastrophic shift in the office, but there are processes set in place to protect victims in the Australian workforce.

Mary has outlined three steps to take if you are targeted in the workplace ...

  1. See it for what it is. Although there isn’t a rule book on what strictly constitutes sexual harassment, we often intuitively feel it in our gut when something is inappropriate. You might want to ask yourself if the remark or behaviour is unwelcome and makes you uncomfortable. And if you’re asking yourself these questions – chances are something isn’t right.

    Remember, everything exists within a context, so a behaviour in and of itself might seem harmless (e.g. a colleague comments “That’s a nice blouse you have on”), but if other situations surrounding it make you feel uneasy (e.g. the same colleague has brushed up against you on multiple occasions, or asked you uncomfortably personal questions) then it constitutes harassment.

  2. Call it out. Whether harassment is happening to you or you see it happen to someone else, it’s important to make it clear that what’s going on is not ok. Sometimes harassers try to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and so you have to make it clear it’s not. Asking “why?” can also be useful in disarming a harasser. E.g. asking your colleague “Why are you complimenting me on my outfit? If it’s a harmless comment, then why have you never complimented any of the male colleagues about their outfits?”

  3. Report it. Your company should have a procedure for reporting sexual harassment. Don’t wait too long, as depending in what country and state you’re based, companies are not legally required to take action against harassers after a certain length of time. It’s also important to write down all the harassing behaviour (with times, dates, and information regarding context) and send it to an appropriate manager/supervisor via email. This is so there is evidence you issued a written, formal complaint. Put ‘Sexual Harassment Complaint’ in the subject line, to be firm in what you’re reporting.

Whisper Network is available now.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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