Dealing with sexualized harassment

The German General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG) prohibits all forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are obligated to prevent harassment and to intervene in the event of an incident. Raising awareness, providing good information, and transparency within the company are the prerequisites for ensuring clarity and preventing assaults from occurring in the first place. However, if an incident of sexual harassment does occur, the procedure for dealing with it must be clearly defined and the employees affected must be helped immediately.

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Woman making stop gesture with her raised hand

A survey conducted by the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency in 2015 established that every second person surveyed in Germany had experienced sexualized harassment at work. The majority of those affected were women, but men as well as trans and intersex people were also affected. Sexualized harassment affects working people of all ages and is independent of professional position and industry. It starts where very personal boundaries are crossed for those affected. It is not a question of whether this is intentional but rather a matter of what effect it has on the person being harassed. Those affected are never themselves to blame.

According to the German General Act on Equal Treatment, sexual harassment is “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, including unwanted sexual acts and requests to carry out sexual acts, physical conduct of a sexual nature, comments of a sexual nature, as well as the unwanted showing or public exhibition of pornographic images … with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person concerned, in particular where it creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

Employers are therefore legally obligated to protect their employees from sexual harassment, to take appropriate measures against it, such as setting up a complaints office, and to investigate every complaint. Works and service agreements create a binding framework and ensure transparency and certainty of action for those responsible for dealing with these matters.

"The General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG) prohibits any form of sexual harassment in the workplace and obligates every employer to prevent and intervene when assaults occur. It protects all employees from sexual harassment in the workplace."
General Equal Treatment Act (AGG)

What you as a manager should know about sexual harassment in the workplace

Managers play a key role in addressing the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, not only as role models but especially in exercising their duty of care. They should be particularly aware when dealing with the issue, be familiar with the legal and company-related framework conditions and know how to deal with members of staff should a situation arise and how to provide confident support.

1. Sexual harassment in the workplace is always prohibited

Staring obviously at a woman's breasts is clearly against the law in the workplace. The General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG) prohibits any form of sexual harassment in the workplace because there is no way to avoid the harasser under those circumstances.

2. Sexual harassment in the workplace is not restricted in terms of place or time

The AGG requires a safe working environment for all employees, with protection extending beyond the office, company premises and working hours to encompass business trips, commutes, company parties, company outings, breaks, and text messages, e-mails and phone calls.

3. The distinction from flirtation is clearly defined: sexual harassment is determined by unwantedness and violation of dignity

Flirtation occurs with mutual consent. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is an unwanted form of behaviour. Sexual harassment is always accompanied by a violation of dignity, whereby it is not a question of whether the violation of dignity was intended but rather a matter of what the effect was on the person subject to harassment. The decisive factor for assessing whether an observed behaviour constitutes sexual harassment is therefore how the behaviour is perceived by the person affected. Since this involves overstepping individual boundaries, it is all the more important for potential victims, but also as feedback for the person from whom the harassment originates, to clearly indicate where their personal boundaries are.

4. Sexual harassment in the workplace is often underestimated and trivialized

Research shows that 60 to 70 percent of women have been sexually harassed at least once in their careers. In the past, very few of these women have spoken up, whether out of fear, shame or simply because they were not taken seriously. Sexual harassment in the workplace absorbs a lot of energy, causes significant stress, affects collaboration and reduces productivity. The effects can be serious, both for the employees affected by it and for the company.

5. In addition to the burden on those affected, sexual harassment and its consequences also pose an occupational risk

In addition to the violation of personal integrity, it can also have severe psychological and health-related consequences for those affected. They often feel insulted, humiliated, ashamed and helpless. Short-term consequences such as insomnia, disgust, anger and aggression can manifest themselves over the long term in anxiety, panic attacks, an inability to work or relationship problems. Not only do the motivation and performance of those affected suffer greatly but also teamwork and the overall working atmosphere. For the employer, not recognizing sexual harassment thus means an acute loss of productivity, and, in the long term, not only do loyalty and trust in the company decrease but a massive loss of image for the company can follow.

Recognize forms of sexualized harassment in the workplace

heads with speech bubble
Verbal harassment
This includes unwanted comments such as double entendres, suggestive jokes, remarks about clothing, appearance, or personal life, propositioning and asking for sexual favours.
Non-verbal harassment
This involves unwanted exposure to sexual or intimate behaviour such as lewd staring or wolf whistling.
Ear and hand
Physical harassment
This involves unwanted touching such as pinching, caressing, kissing or hugging. Repeated failure to maintain the usual physical distance and assaults characterized by violence also belong to this category.
Digital harassment
Digital sexualized harassment in the workplace includes unwelcome advances on social networks, inappropriate images or emojis, and unwanted, harassing messages – for example, by e-mail, text message or WhatsApp.

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