Handling sexual harassment is more important than prevention

“Having a system for how to handle complaints about sexual harassment has a preventive effect. Most organizations don’t have the expertise or systems in place to deal with cases like these,” says Ståle Einarsen.

(Illustration: iStockphoto)

“Efforts to fight sexual harassment should resemble investigative work more than normal activities to improve the working environment,” says Einarsen, a professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Bergen.

The psychologist has been conducting research on bullying and harassment for 20 years, and has published several books on the topic. Together with Anders Skogstad, also a professor at the University of Bergen, he has served as editor for the book titled Det gode arbeidsmiljø (“The Good Working Environment”), which presents a model for effective handling of sexual harassment complaints (see the fact box for more information).

According to Einarsen, the main issue is how we can have a better situation at work.

Many methods

Einarsen explains that there is not just one kind of measure. Prevention must be integrated into the efforts – for example, by including sexual harassment in working environment surveys and making it a general topic at HSE meetings.

“But first and foremost we need good routines for reporting and lodging complaints about sexual harassment, as well as procedures for safeguarding the interests of both parties,” he explains.

Einarsen also thinks that the issue of sexual harassment should be included in the new national working environment survey (see our previous news article “They still won’t ask ”).

Employers have a duty to investigate suspected incidents of sexual harassment, even though the victim has not reported it.

“And the Working Environment Act should be used more! The duty to investigate comes into play when the victim or others report an incident or when the employer has observed a situation that causes suspicion,” Einarsen points out.

Ståle Einarsen, professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Bergen. (Photo: Arbeidsmiljøspesialistene)

Supervisors must investigate

In 2007, several employee and employer organizations, including the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, the Employers’ Association Spekter and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, signed a European framework agreement on harassment and violence in the workplace.

The professor thinks there is a lot that is positive and useful in the agreement, which emphasizes key procedural principles about documentation and impartiality.

“You are required to investigate. Complaints must be investigated. Both parties must be heard. If you have been accused of something, you have a right to know that you are accused. It’s not certain that the conclusion will be that sexual harassment has occurred, but not handling an incident is a violation of the Working Environment Act for both parties,” Einarsen continues.

“My impression is that in Norway there is resistance to bureaucracy and an attitude of ‘can’t we just fix it’. But this can be problematic vis-à-vis the rights of the employees involved. This is why we need good systems for dealing with sexual harassment.”

Common errors

Many organizations use the wrong method to deal with sexual harassment. It is typical for the supervisor to call of meeting where both parties are supposed to talk to each other.

“You must not have a joint meeting. That is a totally wrong strategy. It is important that the parties are heard, but one at a time,” says the professor.

Another problem in Norwegian working life is that an employee can come in and lodge a complaint, but later say “forget that I’ve been here”. And the leadership goes along with it. They sweep it under the rug.

“That isn’t fair for the person being accused. In a country governed by the rule of law, everyone has the right to explain their actions and, if possible, to clear their name.”

“The employer must take a position on the allegations made following an unbiased handling of the case.”

Handling is prevention

Norway has a low number of sexual harassment cases and other forms of bullying in the workplace compared with many other countries. A study by the National Institute of Occupational Health and the University of Bergen  shows that one of six employees has been the victim of sexual harassment.

Regardless of how many people this involves, Einarsen thinks we need to ask the right questions: What do you do if you suspect sexual harassment? What do you do if you are accused of sexual harassment?

“Prevention is great, but it won’t ever stop all harassment and bullying, which will probably always occur to some degree and happen more or less as most workplaces. What is important is what action is taken when such cases do arise,” he says.

According to Einarsen, there are two different methods used in all working environment efforts, regardless of the situation.

One method is if the supervisor wants to see general improvements and does not suspect that one or more employees have experienced a violation of the Working Environment Act. Then a working environment survey can be conducted.

The other method is when there are complaints, reports or suspicions about sexual harassment. In this case the supervisor must conduct a factual investigation.

While the first method has a collective perspective and addresses employees’ satisfaction in the workplace and how the workplace can be improved in the future, the second method entails the handling of specific complaints or reports.

“Creating such systems has a preventive effect. It’s important, but not necessarily easy, to succeed with preventive measures. But handling sexual harassment cases is also preventive in nature,” says Einarsen.

A procedural model

Einarsen believes that sexual harassment must be treated like other reports of problems with the working environment, taking a point of departure in the employee’s:

•    application: a wish or need, but no violation;
•    complaint: assertion of a violation against the complainant that requires redress;
•    notification: a reported observation of harassment or other culpable action.

The supervisor must investigate the report or complaint in accordance with the Working Environment Act: gather the facts and take a position as to whether the incident is a detrimental or an expected part of the employment relationship.

Einarsen elaborates: When an application is submitted, the employee does not necessarily think that others have behaved inappropriately, but the employee is asking for action to be taken. Also in this case, the supervisor must consider implementing measures. Although no accusations have been made, colleagues can be encouraged to change their behaviour.

Importance of speaking up

Sometimes it can be difficult to know that an action is unwelcome if nobody speaks up.

“But if there is a large age difference between the parties, you can be rather sure that it’s unwelcome.”

“Most of us want gender and sexuality to be kept out of the workplace. In all cases, nobody wants their gender to be more important than their personal qualities when they are at work,” explains Einarsen.

Claus Jervell, Senior Advisor at the Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud. (Photo: LDO)

“Just as important, if the accused person learns that the action is unwelcome, either through an application or a complaint, then that individual must also be clear that if it happens again, it may be considered harassment,” he says.

And although a complaint is not upheld, there can be two important results: you have spoken up and the accused person knows your boundaries.

“An excellent model”

Claus Jervell works with sexual harassment and bullying in the office of the Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud, and has a positive view of Einarsen’s methods.

“I don’t think it’s so difficult to take action against sexual harassment – if we acknowledge the problem. There are some work cultures that allow harassment to continue. A sense of loyalty among the ‘fellas’, an unhealthy environment that leads to harassment. Women who say: ‘We have to tolerate this”, and supervisors who caution against certain individuals. Addressing sexual harassment counteracts this culture,” says Jervell.

“Einarsen presents a superb model for safeguarding the rights of the victim and the accused,” says Jervell.

Translated by Connie Stultz.


In November 2013, the Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud and the Committee for Research Balance in Research (the KIF Committee) organized a seminar on sexual harassment.

The three introductory speakers were Helene Jesnes (office of the Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud), Gunilla Carstensen (Dalarna University) and Ståle Einarsen (University of Bergen). Einarsen spoke about the handling – or lack of handling – of sexual harassment in working life.

In this article we explain the methods recommended by Einarsen to deal with sexual harassment cases.

Ståle Einarsen has been the author or co-author of numerous books and articles on the topic, including these in English:

•    Prospective relationships between workplace sexual harassment and psychological distress, Morten B. Nielsen and Ståle Einarsen, 2012.
•    Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace. Developments in Theory, Research and Practice, Ståle Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf, Cary L. Cooper (Eds.), 2010.

As from 1 January 2014, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual attention that is unpleasant for the person receiving the attention. This may occur in three ways: physical, verbal and non-verbal.

Many universities, university colleges and independent research institutes have plans that specify anti-harassment measures and reporting routines (see link below for the plans available in English).