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Sexual harassment - how to deal with it

Employers are under obligation to react to claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. DI Business has spoken to experts about how best to handle this delicate situation.
The Confederation of Danish Industry (DI) is able to assist in the event of claims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Publiceret: 22.09.2016
Af Kathrine Læsøe Engberg mail

“A female employee is sitting in my office saying that she has had her groin and breasts groped by a male colleague. What do I do?”

This was a question Sannie Tvermoes, legal counsel at the Confederation of Danish Industry, was asked when a member company telephoned her for advice.

“Knowing how to handle a situation like that can be difficult, but it is very important that the employer reacts. A claim of sexual harassment can greatly affect the working environment and employers can be fined if they do not react. The employee may even be entitled to claim compensation,” says Sannie Tvermoes.

She explains that employers are under obligation to provide a working environment that is free of harassment.

“That is why I recommended that the manager of the company should have a serious talk with the male colleague to find out what had actually taken place,” she says.

Perhaps surprisingly, the male colleague admitted that yes, he had groped his colleague, but said that she had also groped him.

During the company’s investigation of the event, it transpired that a group of five employees in a warehouse had created a very sexually loaded atmosphere. The female employee had participated actively in both conversations about sex and sexual touching of her male colleague, but the game had got out of hand, and now she no longer found it funny. This meant that it was not a case of sexual harassment as she herself had participated and had at no point said no, explains Sannie Tvermoes.

Lots of grey areas

No clear-cut definition of sexual harassment exists, but the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment writes:

“The boundaries of sexual harassment are fluid because the perception of sexual harassment varies from person to person and from workplace to workplace. Sexual harassment can be defined as ‘a sexual act that is unwanted and therefore unpleasant’”.

Anders Just Pedersen, working environment manager at the Confederation of Danish Industry, manages a team that visits businesses to prevent and handle claims of harassment.

In 2000, the Confederation of Danish Industry took over responsibility for this area from the Danish Working Environment Authority. This means that the Confederation of Danish Industry is under obligation to react if a company under the Collective Agreement for Salaried Employees in Industry makes a claim of a sexual harassment.

“In partnership with a colleague from the Central Organisation of Industrial Employees in Denmark, we make about a hundred visits to businesses a year, but as a rule these visits are luckily not based on actual claims. Our role is to help businesses to ensure a working environment that is free of any form of harassment,” explains Anders Just Pedersen.

Tired of sexual comments

In consultation with the works committee on-site, Anders Just Pedersen and his team conduct about 30 job satisfaction surveys annually on their company visits. These surveys often show that employees feel sexually harassed.

Anders Just Pedersen remembers a specific case at a metal works with 15 employees where the survey showed that one of them felt sexually harassed.

“We organised a meeting with all the employees and the person who had indicated that he felt sexually harassed explained that his wife was from Thailand and that he was very tired of the sexual comments his colleagues sometimes made about her,” says Anders Just Pedersen and continues:

“His colleagues had genuinely not realised that he did not like their comments and we solved the issue together. If just one person feels that he or she is a victim of harassment, the problem has to be addressed. In some cases, this can be done by introducing a policy that describes how people should treat each other in the workplace and guidelines that clearly state who to go to if you feel victimised,” says Anders Just Pedersen.

A survey published by the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment in 2014, based on responses from 27,000 employees, shows that about 1,000 employees believe that they are victims of sexual harassment in their workplace. 

How to avoid sexual harassment:
- Make management signal that sexual harassment is unacceptable.
- Introduce clear guidelines for how to prevent and handle sexual harassment so that everyone knows what to do if it should occur.
- Discuss what constitutes good behaviour and a good atmosphere in the workplace and the boundaries that should be in place.
- Talk about how to say no if boundaries are over¬stepped.
- Clarify who is responsible for preventing and handling the situation if a claim of sexual harassment is made. Clarify what is involved.
- Stay focused on the prevention of sexual harassment, e.g. by including it as an agenda item in annual discussions about the working environment.
Find out more at Danish Working Environment Authority website
Sexual harassment can be defined as ‘a sexual act that is unwanted and therefore unpleasant’.
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PUBLISHED: 9/22/2016 LAST MODIFIED: 3/18/2017