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What to do if sexual harassment happens to you

Sexual harassment at work
Sexual harassment at work is now being talked about in Switzerland Keystone/Gaetan Bally

When allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by the Swiss parliamentarian,Yannick Buttet, emerged a few weeks ago, the discourse on sexual harassment in Switzerland shifted from could this happen here to what should we do about it.

Although a government commissioned study found that 28%External link of women in Switzerland experience sexual harassment over the course of their professional lives, rarely do these cases grab headlines in the same way the Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent cases have in the United States. However, the Buttet affair and recent allegations against professor Franco MorettiExternal link alongside the global #metoo social media campaign have helped bring, what has largely been viewed as a private matter into the public consciousness.

What should you do if you experience sexual harassment in a workplace in Switzerland? What practical resources and legal channels are available to you and how effective are they? answers key questions about employee rights and employer responsibilities with respect to sexual harassment in the workplace.

1. To what extent is sexual harassment a problem in Switzerland? How pervasive is it?    

“It is definitely an issue here,” says Franciska Krings, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Lausanne and co-author of a studyExternal link comparing sexual harassment across the different linguistic and cultural regions in Switzerland. According to the study and a 2008 studyExternal link commissioned by the Federal Office of Gender Equality, around half of women and men surveyed in the three linguistic areas of the country said they experienced “potentially harassing behaviours” in the workplace such as jokes, teasing, and flirting.

However, when asked if they experienced sexual harassment, the rates were strikingly different across regions and genders. Around 18% of women and less than 8% of men in Italian-speaking Ticino and French-speaking parts of the country said they did, compared with 30% of women and 11% of men in the German part. Krings explains that, “people may be more aware of the problem in the German-speaking region but it could also be that some cultures encourage women to speak up more readily”.

2. How does Swiss law define sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on sex and is illegal under Swiss law. The 1995 Gender Equality ActExternal link describes harassing behaviours as threats, the promise of advantages, the use of coercion and the exertion of pressure in order to obtain favours of a sexual nature. Sexist remarks, unwanted body contact, or displaying offensive material in an office could also be considered sexual harassment. What matters is not the intent of the harassing person, but how their behaviour affects the person concerned and whether it is unwanted or welcome.

When an employee is targeted and the behaviours are repeated over a period of time, the sexual harassment can be a form of bullying, referred to as mobbingExternal link, that is intended to marginalise or exclude a person in their workplace. As the University of BaselExternal link policy explains, “the main motive behind harassment has nothing to do with eroticism or sexual attraction. The sexual aspect lends itself to this kind of bullying behaviour, because it is an area where victims are especially vulnerable.”

This is the first article in a two-part series on sexual harassment in Switzerland. Part two will be published on [add in date].

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