Business Management, Career and workforce management

Handling Sexual Harassment at the Workplace – The Role of Business Leaders

In the past few months, there has been a growing case of allegations of sexual harassments in some organisations in Nigeria. This recent courage to speak up came after the successful prosecution of the randy professor at the Obafemi Awolowo University and the Busola Dakolo’s allegation against the Abuja Pastor. 

During the past week, there was an unproven allegation against the founder of Tizeti. This led me to engage some of my female colleagues and mentees, only to discover that we (business leaders across Africa) have failed to protect and support the women working with us as partners, managers and team members. About 80% of the females I talked to have had at least one “serious” sexual harassment issue at the workplace and experienced a minimum of 3 instances of sexual harassment per year outside of the workplace. 

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The African culture and the “perception of religiosity” has also created a culture where we have either normalised harassment behaviors or accepted excuses for sexual harassment and related behaviors such as rape. These cultural norms contribute to the stigmatisation of the victims of sexual harassment and rape, while the perpetrators walk freely to the next set of victims. During the past week, two federal legislators were reported to have argued that sexual harassment is encouraged by the indecent dressing by the ladies. 

The twelve ladies that were part of the informal survey I conducted had similar concerns regarding reporting such incidents at the workplace. They’d rather resign and leave the organisation instead of reporting. They believe that most people would still ascribe the blame on the victims. In some instances, they realized that the perpetrators had repeatedly harassed other colleagues – and none reported. So, why should anyone else report? Victims are usually afraid to report – the consequences could impact their performance evaluations, employment and future opportunities – in addition to being the topic of discussion for office gossips. 

The consequence of the above is that organisations are either losing talents or keeping suppressed and unmotivated employees at the workplace as a result of these sexual harassments.

One of the ladies shared how two different managers at different employers handled the situation when she reported to them. In the two instances, her direct managers were both men but she felt more comfortable reporting to HR at the first workplace while she reported to the direct manager at the second workplace because the second manager was like a “father figure” to the team. In the first workplace, the HR team set up a formal investigation that was not concluded till she left the company after two years of escalating the incident. 

The father figure at the second workplace called the perpetrator (and his own boss) into an informal meeting with her. In less than 15 minutes, she proved the sexual harassment behaviours from the Supervisor (not her own supervisor). Everyone asked the Supervisor to apologise and stay away from the young lady, and he did. 

The first story shows how delays in concluding investigations on issues such as sexual harassment is a leadership failure towards curtailing sexual harassments at the workplace – which is usually the primary goal of harassment victims. The secondary goal of sexual harassment victims is to ensure that there is no negative consequences for reporting such incidents, especially when they are proven to be valid instances, especially from senior executives. 

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Therefore, organisations need to provide trainings and workshops for managers and employees on sexual harassments so that they can better understand what could be deemed as sexual harassment.

Organisations need to ensure that there is a clear policy on employee-employee and supervisor/manager-employee relationships at the workplace, including specific policies on sexual harassments (which must be in the organisation’s staff handbook or policies), reporting protocols and the process for resolving reported issues. There must be clear consequences for proven cases of sexual harassments at the workplace. Organisations must also work to ensure that cases of sexual harassments are promptly handled so that victims can be relieved to concentrate on their work. 

The use of a designated “mentor” in the senior management team and the use of third party managed reporting hotline platforms (to guarantee anonymous reporting from bye standers) could be considered, in addition to a prompt issue management process which would go a long way in helping to create a harassment free workplace for our women (and men too!).

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