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“Need to address under-explored issue of workplace sexual annoyance”

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In a recent panel discussion comprising experts from various sectors, the spotlight was turned onto an often under-discussed aspect of workplace harassment: sexual annoyance. Unlike the more overt forms of sexual harassment, sexual annoyance encompasses subtle, yet equally destructive behaviors that disrupt the comfort and safety of employees in the workplace.

MAS Assistant Manager – Code of Conduct Melanie Kankaratne, representing a company with over 100,000 employees, emphasized the organization’s commitment to creating a safe working environment.

She detailed MAS’s journey in dealing with not just overt sexual harassment but also tackling the nuanced challenges of sexual annoyance, which include inappropriate comments and unwelcome jokes.

Recognizing these issues as ‘hygiene factors’ in workplace ethics, Melanie underscored the importance of a robust framework like MAS’s DNA, which integrates sexual harassment policies within a broader code of conduct. Kankaratne was speaking on December 4 at the launch of the report on ‘Sexual Harassment at the Workplace: Overcoming Barriers to Justice’.

Women’s Chamber Vice Chairperson Gayani de Alwis brought attention to the results of a recent survey revealing the profound impact of gender-based violence and harassment, including subtle forms, on professional and entrepreneurial women.

The survey’s findings indicate a staggering 31% of respondents experienced reputation damage, while 29% considered leaving their jobs due to such harassment.

USAID-linked legal expert Gehan Gunetilleke contributed a vital perspective, discussing the current legal landscape regarding sexual annoyance.

He pointed out the potential of Section 345 of the Penal Code, which, while not explicitly addressing digital spaces, could broadly capture sexual annoyance in the workplace.

However, Gahan cautioned that textual changes in the law alone are insufficient; institutional reforms are equally crucial to address this complex issue effectively.

Highlighting the potential pitfalls in relying solely on legal reforms, Gunetilleke advocated for a multi-faceted approach.

He emphasized that legal changes must be complemented by robust institutional support systems, including training for law enforcement and judicial personnel. This would ensure a more effective handling of sexual annoyance cases, especially those occurring in less tangible, digital realms. Gunetilleke also pointed out the need for corporate accountability in addressing workplace harassment.

He called for companies to not only adopt comprehensive harassment policies but to actively enforce them, ensuring that they are more than just token gestures.

The integration of these policies into the core values and everyday practices of companies, he argued, is crucial in fostering a respectful and safe working environment.

Gunetilleke said, “If you explore civil remedies, again companies, and employers need to start adapting their policies and looking at providing remedies that are meaningful in the context of digital workspaces. How do we establish evidence of an infraction, a policy infraction, if the interaction might have been in the digital realm?” (TP)

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