See something, say something | Things we can do as individuals to stop workplace sexual harassment

If you are like a majority of people, the statement, “I am delighted upon reviewing this 12-page policy document to have found it largely satisfactory,” may not be something you will be caught dead willingly uttering.

Perhaps this stems from a legal trend that is thankfully being corrected by a new generation of lawyers who understand the need for policy documents to be more accessible and less legalese-heavy. Nobody wants to have to read an inaccessible document whole purpose is to serve the very person it is inaccessible to.

Yet, I found myself last week saying exactly that after reviewing the updated workplace sexual harassment policy document of my employer, RED Media Africa.

A lot of research has established a high prevalence of workplace sexual harassment. The most recent of which – conducted by the nonprofit, Stand To End Rape (STER,) which is hard at work to respond to and prevent sexual and gender-based violence, recorded a 64% prevalence.

You can read about that here: Workplace sexual harassment is too prevalent to ignore – STER survey finds

However, it does not even take research to understand how pervasive workplace harassment is. A simple conversation with women who feel safe enough to share their work experience will suffice, if a skim through Nigeria’s entertainment scene – via Nollywood movies – which is littered with the ‘employee-catches-the-eye-of-another-employee/boss-and-their-life-is changed’ trope doesn’t do the trick.

That is just one out of 10s of tropes that are a cultural staple in Nigeria that are indicative of the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment, and telling of how deeply entrenched rape culture is in Nigeria.

Statements that imply and sometimes explicitly point to a sexualisation of coworkers’ bodies or clothing are commonplace even in the most organized workplaces.

“This your dress is too short o,” or “This shorts are too tight,” are statements often jokingly made that fly under the radar as innocuous observations. Often whole dress code policies are implemented by organisations – in a usually well-intentioned bid – to prevent sexual harassment. Yet in so doing, perpetrators are empowered in their sick entitlement to the bodies of their victims.

The gravity of workplace sexual harassment, and our individual missed opportunity to do the decent thing and shrink space for sexual harassment in the workplace until we stamp it out entirely first fully dawned on me when I worked in an official capacity for the first time during NYSC.

A friend had been propositioned by her boss two months into our arrival at our respective Places of Primary Assignment (PPA.)

It didn’t start off with an invitation to hang out or something more outlandish like a remark on her clothing either. It started off with innocuous compliments.

“Maybe a week or two into my arrival to the company he began ending our morning greetings exchange with, ‘you are a fine Ijaw woman sha,’ and everyone will laugh,” I recall her telling me when she first shared with me and her then-lover, “he always said this to everyone’s hearing so no one, myself included, could suspect any hidden intent behind it.”

There was a hidden intent, however. One thing I have since come to understand is that there usually always is, which is why it is important that sexual harassment policies are airtight in order to leave no wiggle room for sly perpetrators.

“Two months later he will come to my desk to consult me on briefings, some of which I had no hand in developing, and rather than stand across my desk he will come around and stand right next to me, his body heat and cologne choking the air around me,” she said, “and soon enough he will be leaning very close, his shoulder grazing mine, to point at items on the document. It felt off.”

“When the first invitation to go for a drink came – and this was after we had a work thing for a colleague’s birthday a week prior and I had a blast because it felt safe – I realized that was the other shoe dropping and immediately declined.”

He persisted.

My friend (whose name, even altered, I chose to withhold) was already struggling every morning with anxiety over the possibility of harassment long before the innocuous compliments morphed into full-on demands to go out with him.

“I wanted so badly for someone – anyone – particularly the senior partners that are within his age range to call him to order about the excessive compliments, but no one did,” she said, “one of the partners, a woman in her 40s that I was especially hoping will see through his seemingly harmless behavior actually jokingly told me how lucky I am to be in his favour. I didn’t want his favour, I just wanted to work.”

I remember being baffled that no one else in the company could see this. The truth is, they could. They were just practicing the very Nigerian art of – if e no concern me I no go chook mouth. We confirmed this some months after she changed PPA when a former colleague we were on good terms with attended my birthday on her invite and he opened about knowing what was going on.

“He is notorious for sleeping with the NYSC babes,” he said with no great concern.

Perhaps because rape culture is so entrenched in Nigeria, many people – young and old – see unwanted advances as something one should be grateful for. Men – mostly but not limited to young men – rather than be outraged at the harassment of their colleagues, often become resentful of the victims instead.

Some of the recommendations by STER on what could be done to stem workplace sexual harassment at all levels – governmental, organizational, and individual, are important to highlight here.

I wondered a lot after I became privy to my friend’s harrowing experience, what could have been had her colleagues been proactive and stepping in, even once.

In addition to what falls on organisations to do, which we wrote about here:

Tackling workplace sexual harassment is far easier for organisations than some ad campaigns

These are some of the things we can do as individuals in our workplaces to ensure that the policies – if we have them – work and if they are nonexistent at least that we don’t lend our spaces to a perverted behavior that disadvantages people who only came to work to make a living and not be subjected to violence.

  • Get familiar with the organisation’s sexual harassment policies and procedures or lack thereof. If the situation is the latter, that way one knows to bring it up as soon as the opportunity arises, or navigate the workplace as best as they can otherwise.
  • Important note here is, where an organization lacks a sexual harassment, getting familiar with state laws on sexual harassment can be of great help.

We wrote about Lagos state’s policy here:

Workplace sexual harassment is too prevalent to ignore – STER survey finds

  • Build awareness by seeking out accurate information on how to identify and prevent sexual harassment.
  • Treat all co-workers, clients, and vendors with respect and always be professional.
  • Keep a record of all harassment incidents (name of the harasser, their position within the company and the type of harassment) if you are being harassed or you are witness to the harassment of a fellow employee. This will come in handy in the event of an investigations that calls you as a witness or victim. Be specific about times, dates, locations, and the names of any witnesses to the incident.
  • Report the incident through the appropriate workplace channels if you are experiencing harassment, are aware that an employee is being taken advantage of, or aware an employee is a sexual harasser.
  • Refrain from engaging in any intimidation attempts towards individuals who report incidents of sexual harassment.

Understand how victim-blaming enables rape in Nigeria by reading this piece:

How slut-shaming, patriarchy and victim-blaming enables rape in Nigeria

Everyone deserves a workplace free of violence – sexual as much as any other form. That is what I thought beaming with satisfaction after reviewing my employers’ updated policy document. We are off to a good start.

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