United States: A 5 Step Risk Management Approach – Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment

Last Updated: July 10 2018
Article by Jane Hall and Sam Witton

Allegations of sexual harassment have dominated headlines, most visibly with the #MeToo campaign.

Sexual harassment complaints, and the laws that attempt to curb the behaviours, are not new. Despite regulation, sexual harassment is still occurring in workplaces. Why?

One answer may be that organisations guard against sexual harassment through policy and lecture style training without reference to the broader workplace context.

To counter this, an alternate approach may be to use existing risk management frameworks, that have traditionally been used in the workplace health and safety context.

Step 1: Identify hazards

This step requires a deep and honest assessment of the:

  • Structure of the organisation and the industry context.
    For example: Highlighting potential hazards, such as reliance on informal recruitment practices and extreme competition for jobs that could combine to create a higher risk environment.
  • Type of work.
    For example: Physically demanding work and roles that seek attributes where appearance determines recruitment could increase risks.
  • Way work is performed.
    For example: If work is performed in environments that isolate workers, and where workers are required to be alone with a superior, colleague or customer this could lead to increased risks.

Step 2: Assess the risks

Understand the nature of harm that could be caused by the hazard, how serious the harm could be and the likelihood of it happening.

To assess this, ask:

  • How often are people exposed to the hazard? Does this make the harm more or less likely?
  • Has sexual harassment ever happened before arising from the identified hazard, either in your workplace or somewhere else? How often?

Step 3: Identify control measures and assess whether they are reasonably practicable

The most important step in managing risks involves eliminating them so far as is reasonably practicable, or if that is not possible, minimising the risks so far as is reasonably practicable. This requires higher order controls.

Can a hazard or risk be eliminated?

If lower order controls are used are these the right type of the controls? Our experience is that lecture style, text book training to address sexual harassment rarely works by itself. Interactive, engaging sessions which avoid regurgitating the legal definition of sexual harassment are likely to better engage a workforce.

Step 4: Implement the control measures

Implementation of the control measures may require changes to the way work is performed. This may require new procedures, additional training and supervision.

Step 5: Review and revise

Viewed through a risk management lens, polices and training which have typically been the tools of choice for addressing sexual harassment are low on the hierarchy of the controls. If organisations approach sexual harassment with a risk management approach, and identify appropriate higher order controls might we decrease instances of sexual harassment?

For example:

It is identified that in a highly competitive niche creative business which uses short term workers, recruitment is frequently informal and takes place at industry events.

All else being equal, the likelihood of (an allegation of) sexual harassment is higher in these circumstances than if recruitment were to occur in an office where a formal interview was conducted with a representative mix of interviewers.

The organisation seeks to minimise the risks, by putting in place processes that ensure even when contacts are met at industry events, a formal interview occurs within working hours in the office environment.

These control measures are reviewed and reviseded. Ensure the control measures remain effective. Are complaints of sexual harassment decreasing? What does formal and informal consultation with workers tell us about the effectiveness of controls?

We are working with our clients to trial this approach – combining our specialist expertise across workplace health and safety, and employment law.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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