If there’s one thing that statistics clearly tells us, it’s that sexual harassment continues to be a major source of concern in the Philippines and all over the world. A survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) gives us a glimpse of how prevalent and complex the problem has become.
- 3 in 5 women have experienced being sexually harassed.
- Majority of the incidents of sexual harassment happen during the day and in public places.
- 1 in 2 women did nothing after they were harassed, and a lot of those who chose to be silent did so out of fear.
- A significant number of victims blame themselves for being sexually harassed.
- Perpetrators commit sexual harassment regardless of their educational background and employment status.
A quick look at the survey’s findings tells you how difficult it is to free your own workplace from incidents of sexual harassment. It’s a challenge that even seasoned HR leaders still have a thing or two to learn about. In other countries, 38% of reported sexual harassment cases happens at work. That, along with the numbers listed above, is a major cause of alarm, especially if one of your primary tasks is safeguarding other people’s safety, productivity, and well-being.
Sexual harassment in the workplace defined
Section 3 of the Republic Act 7877 or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 sets the parameters on who can be charged with work or training-related sexual harassment and how such a crime is committed.
“Work, education or training-related sexual harassment is committed by an employer, employee, manager, supervisor, agent of the employer, teacher, instructor, professor, coach, trainor, or any other person who, having authority, influence or moral ascendancy over another in a work or training or education environment, demands, requests or otherwise requires any sexual favor from the other, regardless of whether the demand, request or requirement for submission is accepted by the object of said Act.”
But what exactly qualifies as an incident of work-related sexual harassment? How will a remark or a behavior be considered a form of abuse? According to the law, there are three things to check: (1) the conditions (should there be any) under which a sexual favor was asked, (2) the victim employee’s rights under existing labor laws, and (3) the impact that the incident had on the victim. RA 7877 says that employment-related sexual harassment is done when:
- The sexual favor is made as a condition in the hiring or in the employment, re-employment or continued employment of said individual, or in granting said individual favorable compensation, terms of conditions, promotions, or privileges; or the refusal to grant the sexual favor results in limiting, segregating or classifying the employee which in any way would discriminate, deprive or diminish employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect said employee;
- The above acts would impair the employee’s rights or privileges under existing labor laws; or
- The above acts would result in an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for the employee.
In a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled out that “…it is not necessary that the demand, request or requirement of a sexual favor be articulated in a categorical oral or written statement.” This means a case of sexual harassment may be said to exist in any situation wherein a sex offender’s act made the victim’s work environment “intimidating, hostile, or offensive.”
The duty of the employer: Where HR comes in
RA 7877 holds employers or the heads of work institutions responsible for preventing cases of sexual harassment and for providing procedures for the resolution of the same. To fulfill those responsibilities, employers and their HR teams must implement rules and regulations governing investigations of sexual harassment cases and the sanctions tied with them.
The law also requires that there be a committee on decorum and investigation of cases of sexual harassment, which, in the case of a work-environment, should comprise of at least one representative from the management, union, employees from the supervisory rank, and from rank-and-file employees.
Sexual harassment complaint process and documentation: A practical guide
Besides making employees aware of what the law says and giving them tips on how to combat sexual harassment, your best weapon is a well put-together policy and complaint procedure. DOLE has a template available online, but always it pays to know the workings behind the creation of a process and a document. Being aware of the nitty-gritty helps you ensure that the policy you’re drafting is tailored fit for your organization. Whether you’re starting from scratch or adopting a set of rules, the following guidelines should help you come up with a solid policy document on work-related sexual harassment.
Specifying the forms of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment comes in different forms, and including those forms in your document helps you avoid grey areas that might prolong or hamper investigations. The Society for Human Resource Management divides the forms of sexual harassment into three categories: verbal, nonverbal, and physical.
- Verbal sexual harassment includes innuendoes, suggestive comments, jokes of a sexual nature, sexual propositions, lewd remarks and threats; requests for any type of sexual favor (this includes repeated, unwelcome requests for dates); and verbal abuse or “kidding” that is oriented toward a prohibitive form of harassment, including that which is sexual in nature and unwelcome.
- Nonverbal sexual harassment includes the distribution, display or discussion of any written or graphic material, including calendars, posters and cartoons that are sexually suggestive or show hostility toward an individual or group because of sex; suggestive or insulting sounds; leering; staring; whistling; obscene gestures; content in letters and notes, facsimiles, e-mail, photos, text messages, tweets and Internet postings; or other form of communication that is sexual in nature and offensive.
- Physical sexual harassment includes unwelcome, unwanted physical contact, including touching, tickling, pinching, patting, brushing up against, hugging, cornering, kissing and fondling and forced sexual intercourse or assault.
At best, a list of examples of sexual harassment can only serve as a guide — not a complete and exclusive rundown of possible violations — in a policy document. It’s a must to include a caveat highlighting this fact. Also, it may be a good idea to somehow define what will not be considered as forms of harassment, such as interactions that are non-coercive and are bound by respect.
Provisions against retaliation
Many victims of sexual harassment choose not to file complaints out of their fear of comebacks. Their fear is warranted, especially in environments like the workplace, where one’s livelihood and reputation are at stake. Offenders, especially those who are well up the ranks, may threaten or blackmail victims, discouraging the latter to take action.
Your policy should indicate that no kind of hardship or penalty should be imposed upon those who will speak up and file harassment complaints. A similar protection from retaliation should also cover those who respond to, investigate, and appear as witnesses for a complaint.
Many victims of work-related sexual harassment refuse to speak out and seek help out of the fear of being judged by their colleagues and the society. Some even tend to blame themselves for being vulnerable to abuse, for “leading the perpetrators on.” That’s why it’s important to maintain that everything a sexual-harassment victim discloses, including his or her identity, will be kept confidential by the company and those involved in the investigation. Promoting your policy’s confidentiality clause may further assure employees that their reputation will never be at stake if they choose to lodge a complaint after a traumatizing incident of sexual harassment.
Complaint process and procedure
In the Philippines, legal action against people who committed sexual harassment can only be taken within three years from the time of the incident, so related complaints should be considered time-sensitive. One effective way to ensure that your company handles complaints and does investigations in a timely manner is to set a deadline for each step of the complaint procedure. A good practice is to write down every part of the procedure like this: “Within X working days, the HR manager shall [insert the steps to be taken].” Also, make sure to specify the name of the department or the designation of the person responsible for taking action in each part of the process. Instead of simply writing “the ad-hoc committee member” or “the person responsible for complaint X,” put “the HR manager/director” or “the legal counsel.”
The ideal procedure for addressing complaints of sexual harassment comprises of the following essential steps.
(1) Filing of a written and signed complaint by the victim, his/her supervisor, or a concerned employee
(2) Review of the complaint, care of an HR officer or representative and the company’s legal counsel
(3) Investigation and interview with the complainant, witnesses (if there are any), and the respondent
(4) Recommendation of the appropriate disciplinary or preventive action, whatever is applicable
(5) Submission and review of statements challenging the result of the investigation
In the end, HR is all about enabling and empowering people to help your company grow, and neither of the two can be done if some of your most valuable assets are falling prey to sex offenders. With perpetrators on the loose and a culture that encourages victim-blaming, silence, and inaction, your employees’ productivity, morale, and well-being stand on the brink of being compromised. Ignore the seriousness of the problem and you’ll contribute to a society that tolerates abuse. Sexual harassment continues to be a threat in the workplace, and as a Human Resources leader, you can do a lot to win the fight against it.