Is sexual harassment an issue in financial services?

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Published in the IFA.

Recently I was asked to respond to the announcement of the federal government’s inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace and if the financial services industry was particularly at risk.

My experience for 25 years had been interviewing executives for high level positions and they were only going to tell me the positive.

In the past five years that FEW has been operating, I hear more about bullying, age discrimination and gender stereotypes than sexual harassment. We thought the only way to find out was to ask our FEW members.

In less than a week we had 120 responses to our survey. Here are the questions and summary of responses:

  • In the past five years, have you been sexually harassed in the workplace?

80 per cent said they have not been sexually harassed in the past five years (20 per cent said they had)

This means 23 women from this survey feel they have been sexually harassed in the workplace.

We asked respondents who answered yes to explain how they had been sexually harassed. Here is a breakdown:

  • Inappropriate comments made by men and women as well as clients
  • Inappropriate text messages
  • Inappropriate material being shown on the computer in the office in full view

It is important to note that no comments were made for anything more serious.

  • Have you observed anyone being sexually harassed within your organisation?

74 per cent said they had not observed anyone in their office being sexually harassed, however 26 per cent had.

This means 30 women observed others being sexually harassed in their organisation.

Here is a breakdown of what they observed:

  • Several comments about after work drinks turning into flirtation and drunk employees being taken advantage of
  • Inappropriate comments and boundaries regarding personal space/lingering touch
  • Comments on appearance and bad taste jokes
  • Comments about both male and female staff stalking other staff
  • Conference behaviour goes too far, especially when alcohol is involved
  • Do you feel sexual harassment is a major problem within the financial services industry?

63 per cent feel that sexual harassment is not a major problem within the financial services industry. However, 37 per cent feel it is.

Comments for this included:

  • They feel the culture is changing for the better, however still dominated by older men who don’t have filters
  • Many comments were focused on more education on what is acceptable and what isn’t, also what is acceptable to one may not be acceptable to someone else
  • Many comments on conference behaviour, which is seen as a problem
  • Do you feel that your organisation has addressed the issue sufficiently and have the policies and procedures in place addressed any issue quickly?

75 per cent felt their organisation had addressed the issue sufficiently and has policies in place to address quickly, while 25 per cent felt their organisation hadn’t.

Here is a breakdown of additional comments:

  • Respondents felt employees are more empowered to flag inappropriate behaviour, however they felt there should be someone internal who they can go to who specialises in how to respond and who will keep their confidentiality. They do not want to go to HR or their manager
  • While processes are in place, the view of what is or isn’t sexual harassment differs and more education is required
  • Most felt that their companies have zero tolerance and good processes in place, especially those respondents who said they worked for a large financial institution
  • Several comments on more training for men and women on what is appropriate, and this should be an online course that everyone should be required to take every two years and at their induction coming into the organisation

In assessing the survey and additional conversations I have had with members during the week (which wasn’t easy being end of financial year!), one thing is for sure: everyone is confused about what is or what isn’t sexual harassment. Where are the lines drawn? Just because there is a policy in place, is it being actioned and are you sure everyone in your organisation gets it?

Here are my top three tips to improving the awareness and process in any organisation:

  1. Clearly define what sexual harassment is. Have an education course that is mandatory at induction and every two years. Online, one-hour and with the staff member acknowledging their understanding with multiple choice questions to engage and real-life video examples of what happens in the work place. Make sure there are no grey areas.
  2. Have a go-to person internally who specialises in handling the situation and assessing sexual harassment. Someone who will keep information confidential and will act as an adviser to the employee on what to do next. If a smaller organisation, this person could be an external source, however it needs to be clear who they are, and confidentiality must be guaranteed.
  3. Look at a specific policies for work functions/conferences etc regarding alcohol and what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Ensure employees know what is work time and what is personal time.

The government inquiry will identify examples of existing good practice, make recommendations for change and provide a way forward for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

I believe the inquiry will tell us something we already know. Hopefully the results will focus on more of what we can do going forward to prevent it in the future and ensure awareness and education for everyone in every industry.

Judith Beck is CEO/founder of Financial Executive Women and was the former chief executive of Financial Recruitment Group.

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