What is sexual harassment?

Employees are entitled to a safe working environment without sexual harassment. Together, we can make systematic efforts to draw the line on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention with the intention or effect of being offensive, frightening, hostile, degrading, humiliating or annoying. Sexual harassment may range from sexual remarks about a person’s body and appearance, simulation of sexual movements, stroking, touching and assault. This may also include showing pictures with sexual content.

Sexual harassment is one of a number of forms of harassment. Harassment involves acts, omissions or remarks with the effect or intention of being offensive, frightening, hostile, degrading or humiliating. This may, for example, involve unwanted sexual attention, bullying, ostracism or hurtful joking or teasing. Harassment may occur as isolated or repeated incidents. Isolated incidents must be of a certain severity before they can be regarded as harassment. However, if negative and offensive remarks or acts are carried out systematically and repetitively over time, they can be classed as bullying, which is a form of harassment.

Sexual harassment and other forms of harassment are prohibited under section 4-3 of the Working Environment Act. In addition, section 13 (see section 6, first paragraph) of the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act provides special protection against sexual harassment and other forms of harassment on grounds of gender, ethnicity, religion, belief, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Severe sexual harassment may also be subject to a fine or imprisonment under section 297 of the Penal Code concerning sexual acts performed without consent.

Employees are entitled to a working environment without sexual harassment from managers, colleagues, customers and guests. The employer is obliged to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and to deal with it promptly if it occurs.

Employees must always report unwanted sexual attention and offensive behaviour, whether carried out by guests, customers, colleagues or managers. All employees who witness or know of harassment are obliged to report it to the employer or safety representative. If a manager is the one harassing, then the manager’s immediate superior must be notified.

When an employer receives an allegation of sexual harassment, this obliges the employer to investigate what has happened and implement essential measures to re-establish a fully satisfactory working environment.

Employees, for their part, are obliged to help in ensuring that rules and measures are followed. Furthermore, the safety representative or working environment committee (“arbeidsmiljøutvalg”, AMU) must be consulted in all matters concerning working environment. The safety representative has a special obligation to ensure that rules, procedures and claims are followed up. The occupational health service (“bedriftshelsetjeneste”, BHT) also provides valuable help on working environment issues.

The purpose of the occupational safety and health efforts at the workplace is to protect employees against harassment. The rules and procedures are not intended to regulate the actions of good colleagues as long as these actions reflect the wishes of both parties and do not have an undesirable impact on other employees or on the working environment.

Sexual harassment may occur at all workplaces where employees deal with other people, whether it be colleagues or guests, customers or clients. Some employees are more vulnerable than others.

In the Survey on Working Environment carried out by Statistics Norway in 2016, four per cent (4%) of employees say that they are subjected to unwanted sexual attention, remarks or the like once or more a month. This affects more women than men. Among young women between 18 and 24 years of age, 12 per cent state that they are subjected to sexual harassment at work. Four out of five of these state that the harassment was carried out by clients, customers or guests.

The greatest incidences of sexual harassment are found in the hotel and catering (HORECA) sector and public health and social services sectors. Fourteen per cent of all employees in the hotel and catering sector state that they have been subjected to unwanted sexual attention. Altogether 22 per cent of women who work in the sector state that they have been subjected to unwanted sexual attention.

The risk of being subjected to sexual harassment varies between different sectors and occupations. Employees can be subjected to sexual harassment at all workplaces.

In order to implement essential measures to prevent sexual harassment, the employer must cooperate with the employees on providing an overview of the situations where the risk is greatest and which employee groups that are most vulnerable. This must be followed by implementation of essential measures/procedures to prevent sexual harassment.

Relevant risk groups include:

  • Young female employees
  • Apprentices and trainees
  • Part-time employees and temporary/on call employees
  • Minority groups

Relevant risk factors include:

  • Serving of alcoholic beverages
  • Working alone (being alone on shift)
  • Work involving close contact with guests, customers or clients

In sectors with most sexual harassment cases, such as hotel and catering, there are many risk factors that need to be taken into account. Serving of alcoholic beverages, working alone, and evening and night shifts increase the risk of harassment by guests and/or customers. The sector employs many young women. There is also considerable staff turnover, as well as apprentices and many temporary employees who are frightened to speak up. Ensuring a satisfactory workplace culture therefore requires continuous efforts.

Being subjected to sexual harassment at work may have consequences both for individual employees and for the working environment in the workplace.

Research shows that sexual harassment may result in health disorders, stress, reduced  job satisfaction, sick leave, absenteeism and labour force losses in the sector.