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“Managers must take responsibility when sexual harassment occurs”

The #MeToo movement shifted the spotlight from the victims of sexual harassment to the perpetrators. But what does the management of a company do when it happens? This is the question addressed in a new Nordic report on sexual harassment in working life.

In recent years, several studies have shown that employees in the hotel and restaurant industry experience more sexual harassment than in most other industries. The #MeToo movement helped to further define what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace and how employees perceive it. But what about those who are responsible for ensuring employees’ safety? Little is known about how management deals with sexual harassment, but a new report, “Sexual harassment in the Scandinavian hotel industry: Experiences from three hotels in Denmark, Norway and Sweden”, provides some answers.

“We need more knowledge from the employer’s perspective about sexual harassment. How does the management view it and how do they prevent it? This is why we took the initiative on this report,” says Rønnaug M. Retterås, Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombudsman (LDO) and project manager for the initiative. LDO has also collaborated with its Nordic sister institutions: the Equality Ombudsman in Sweden and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

“Must create more transparency”

In the report, the managers of three large hotel chains from each of the three Nordic countries were interviewed about their understanding and handling of sexual harassment.

“The lack of transparency around the topic makes it difficult for management in the industry to bring such cases to light, even though the #MeToo movement may have led to greater openness,” says Mona Bråten, a researcher at the Fafo Research Foundation who is responsible for the report along with her colleague Beate Sletvold Øistad. The research has been funded by the Nordic Gender Equality Fund, which is administered by Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK) under the Nordic Council of Ministers.

“One of the most important things we can do to prevent sexual harassment is to create a positive psychosocial working environment where difficult topics can be discussed,” says Bråten. This means, for example, including questions about sexual harassment in employee surveys. This is seldom done today.

But the large hotel chains often have their own sexual harassment policies.

“However, the report shows that there are complex aspects of the working environment that are not easy to regulate in detail. The solution is to handle the cases in the context in which they occur,” Bråten explains.

Worse with colleagues than guests

If a guest harasses an employee, the guest can be asked to leave the hotel. But it is more complicated to find a solution when an employee harasses a colleague. According to the researchers, the lack of a clear definition of sexual harassment, as well situations that fall into a grey zone, mean that managers find it difficult to deal with such cases.

It seems as if employers are not fully aware of the alternatives for dealing with sexual harassment when it occurs, Retterås of LDO believes.

“Firing people or getting them to resign is not the only option. It’s understandable that a manager is reluctant to get involved in the case, but there are a variety of measures that can be used. The report shows that these must be clarified better,” she says, and mentions that managers can call the parties into a meeting or issue a reprimand. In this case, it is critical that the managers have done their homework.

“The management and the employees must try to agree on some boundaries for what is acceptable behaviour. Then the managers have a guidepost for holding such a meeting and it can be easier to get people to change direction. You could say, for example: ‘We agreed that is was not appropriate to send naked photos to each other, but now that you’ve done it, what do you think about it?” Retterås recommends.

Aims to be the best

The report was recently presented at a seminar on preventing and handling sexual harassment in the hotel and restaurant industry in Oslo, which was attended by public authorities, employer organizations and labour unions from Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

“Sexual harassment, together with gender equality, is the most difficult topic for employers in the tourism industry,” said Kristin Krohn Devold, Managing Director of the Norwegian Hospitality Association.

“This is why it’s even more important that the management speaks loudly and clearly. The objective is that tourism will be an attractive industry for women. We aim to be the best at dealing with sexual harassment,” said Krohn Devold.

New law in Denmark

Several of the participants discussed the cooperation between employer and employee organizations to fight sexual harassment. Lina Tidell of the Swedish employers’ organization Visita and Annica Hedbrant of the labour organization Unionen talked about the online course “Everyday fairness”, which provides training on the organizational and social working environment for employees and management.

“The training works well precisely because it addresses specific types of behaviour, and doesn’t talk only in vague terms about sexual harassment. Everyone must take responsibility and it must be worked on all the time. The management cannot just have a policy, but must actively support and model the culture they want to implement,” said Annica Hedbrant of the labour organization Unionen.

Peter Breum, a labour rights expert from Denmark, agreed that managers must take responsibility for the company culture. But it is often said that the social atmosphere in the industry is tough and that employees must therefore tolerate more than in other industries. A new Danish law contradicts this notion.

“If the atmosphere in the industry is rough, should you tolerate it? No. The employer must set the parameters for how it is acceptable to act,” said Breum.

What happens after #MeToo?

The report on sexual harassment in the hotel and tourism industry should actually have resulted in a handbook for the industry. But due to the #MeToo movement, the work to prepare the handbook was accelerated and was completed in August. The handbook, called “Draw the line”, presents six measures that can be used to prevent and deal with sexual harassment. In Sweden, a similar handbook is in the final phase of completion.

Towards the end of the seminar, several participants pointed out how the efforts to prevent sexual harassment have been affected by the #MeToo movement.

“Suddenly the spotlight has shifted from the victim to the perpetrator, and requires that they actually do something about it. The work to prevent sexual harassment has taken a huge leap forward,” said Agneta Broberg, the Swedish Equality Ombudsman.

“But the work against sexual harassment must also continue after the lights from #MeToo fade, because the problem is not so easy to solve,” said Arve Semb Christophersen, Regional Director at the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority.

Updated 14 October 2019