SHW* - sexual harassment in the workplace

The total number of the studied target group who took part in the survey is 126 employees, of whom: 82.4% are women and 17.6% are men.

The stronger predominance of women in the sample is in favor of the study, because it is assumed that women are more likely to become victims of violence and sexual harassment. The sample includes representatives of all age groups, with the persons aged between 31-40 years having the greatest weight. The respondents come from a wide range of industries and economic activities.

The largest share of respondents is from the public sector with 14.4%, followed by transportation and storage with 12.8% each. The distribution of the respondents is proportional according to the ownership of the company. The representatives of the public sector are 47.2% and of the private sector - 46.4%. All these data give reason to believe that the general methodology has been observed, and the proportional way of the sampling helps to cover a wide range of opinions and assessments of the real situation of the phenomenon of sexual harassment in the workplace.


The importance of the problem of SHW is not perceived as relevant, not commented on and not fully realized by society. Of all the listed forms of violence at work, more than half of the respondents ranked first as the most significant psychological violence (52%) – including verbal harassment, insults, abuse, followed by physical violence (24%) and barely 12% put sexual harassment first. This means that the importance of the phenomenon of sexual harassment is largely underestimated and seen in the context of the daily difficulties faced by workers.

Hence the conclusion that employees rarely think about the nature of the phenomenon they encounter on a daily basis, believing that it is a normal element of the daily life. The necessary knowledge about the phenomenon SHW and its consequences for the work process is missing. There is a lack of awareness of the employer's obligations to provide SHW prevention and to provide a work environment in which the employee feels safe and secure.

It is worrying that according to the respondents

almost all potential forms of sexual harassment are practiced in the working process.

For about 2/3 of the surveyed persons, the individual elements of the definition of sexual harassment (with which they were familiarized before filling in the questionnaire), to a greater or lesser extent are reflected in the workplace. The most important forms indicated are: discussion of a colleague's sexual life (30.4%), unwanted sexual innuendos, suggestions (27.2%), sexual comments about someone's appearance, such as body parts, clothes, etc. (26.4%). It should be noted, however, that this is a very delicate topic and many avoid talking about it openly.

For about 1/3 of the respondents, none of the listed forms are practiced in the workplace. In order to determine whether a behaviour is sexual harassment, one must consider the nature of the behaviour, how it is perceived (desirable or undesirable), and what the outcome is. Sexual harassment can occur even when the person who is harassing has no intention of offending and for him/her it is just a joke, a harmless flirtation or a flattery. Ultimately, however, from a legal point of view, unwanted behaviour should cause some harm in order to be classified as sexual harassment, which in the absence of legal regulation does not provide much opportunity for reaction.

It is worrying that for about half (47.2%) of the surveyed persons the employer or the management team in the enterprise is not engaged in prevention and fight against sexual harassment. This problem is more pronounced in the private sector, where 53.5% of respondents believe that the employer is more or less not involved in the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace. For the public sector this is true for 37.3% of the respondents.

The results of the study show that the factors that cause sexual harassment are rooted in a broad social, organizational and cultural context. The factors indicated by the respondents can generally be classified into several groups:

1.Factors related to the personality and behaviour of the colleagues - personal factors.

2.Factors related to the socio-psychological atmosphere, management and organizational style, and working conditions - organizational factors.

The personal factors turn out to be the most important, as for 40.8% this is the lack of reaction on the part of people and the environment, followed by the organizational factors - the lack of criminal prosecution and measures to punish the perpetrator (36%)

It is difficult to assess the spread of SHW due to the fact that the assessment is subjective and has to reflect the victim's behaviour. The results of the survey show that

 ¼ of the respondents have experienced a situation of sexual harassment in the workplace, and for 81.2% of them the abuser is a man.

The share of respondents (28.8%) who state that they have witnessed sexual harassment of a colleague at work increases significantly. These data give us grounds to summarize that the phenomenon ‘sexual harassment at work’ really exists, but the problem with its perception and assessment of the consequences remains. The consequences of SHW in the workplace are undoubtedly a problem, not only for the victims themselves, but also for society as a whole, because the negative effects are manifested in different directions and besides immediate, their effect is also long-lasting.

Of all the respondents who have suffered some form of SHW, only about 1/3 say that they have overcome the problem and are already calmly discussing it. For ¼ of the respondents, this harassment lead to leaving work, others work under stress and tension (21.8%), and still others have anxious memories going back to the experience (18.7%). Sexual harassment in all its forms is associated with humiliation, threats and self-isolation. For anyone, including those who are not directly affected by such violence, it undermines the trust and mutual respect that are at the core of free and open exchange of ideas. Such behaviour also leads to adverse effects on the quality of work and creates a hostile, threatening or aggressive atmosphere.

According to the survey data, SHW is most frequently exercised by employees with a higher position in the hierarchy (48.8%), followed by colleagues (28.8%). These data show that sexual harassment is usually perpetrated by a person who, due to his/her official authority or seniority and has the opportunity to unilaterally influence aspects of the harassed person's official position, career development or work environment. But he or she may simply be another employee in work contact with the victim.

The reaction of the victims is a consequence of social, organizational and personal factors.

Most women and girls are afraid to report violence because they fear they will lose their jobs or be punished and/or subjected to further harassment.

These cases, among other things, are difficult to prove, very often such interventions are carried out without witnesses and the perpetrators are rarely aggressive in front of other people, although this is not excluded.

The results of the survey show that the fear of losing a job has the highest weight (60%), followed by feelings of shame and misunderstanding by colleagues (33.6%). A high share is also assigned to organizational factors, such as lack of effective protection procedures (28.8%) and lack of knowledge of protection procedures. It is also worrying that

for ¼ of the respondents, sexual harassment at work is not perceived as a problem.

This is a consequence of the lack of information and knowledge about the problem and protection procedures. In such cases, the victims are demotivated and hence they ususally start wanting to leave their jobs, which leads to additional company costs for hiring new employees.


Gender-based sexual harassment

 In Bulgarian law, gender is one of the signs, on which discrimination can be based, including in the workplace. Formally, there is no specific legal framework aimed at protection from violence and harassment of persons of a certain gender. Nevertheless, the data from the study give grounds to assume that SHW, although theoretically not gender-based, is in practice more often aimed at women. According to 2/3 of the respondents, women are at a higher risk of sexual harassment, while only 15.3% believe that both sexes are equally exposed to this risk.

Consequences for the victim in reporting of sexual harassment.

According to the respondents, if a victim reacts against SHW, the consequences follow in the form of psychological violence (32%), creation of a hostile environment (28.2%), as well as risk of impending dismissal (23.2%) and deprivation of career opportunities (20%). The strong negative effect of the subsequent consequences of the victim's reaction, combined with the lack of mechanisms for institutional support, leads to the spread and impunity of the perpetrator. However, these are dangerous reactions because they do not eliminate the prerequisites for the manifestation of SHW.

They just disturb the inner mental and emotional comfort of victims and do not allow them to show their abilities at work to the maximum, from which the company as a whole suffers. The main reasons for poor reporting are the lack of awareness about the characteristics of sexual harassment, the lack of appropriate tools/methods for assessing and overcoming the problem, poor prioritization of the problem, both at the state and company level.

In the Bulgarian legislation the topic of protection from harassment and violence is set in various legislative acts. It currently lacks legislation aimed at neutralizing violence and harassment, including on the basis of gender, in particular in the field of employment. At the same time, the terms violence, harassment and sexual violence are used in the legislation in a specific context related to other social relations. The Protection against Discrimination Act (PDA) defines sexual harassment and gives norms aimed at regulating these relations in cases of violence or sexual harassment.

If an employer has received a complaint from an employee who is considered to have been sexually harassed at work, he or she is obliged to carry out an immediate investigation, take measures to stop the harassment, and impose disciplinary action if the harassment is performed by another employee.

According to the PDA, employers are liable for acts of violence and harassment committed at the workplace by their employee.

According to a trade union representative, employers are aware of the Protection against Discrimination Act and the need to take preventive measures. They are obliged to develop these rules and measures and place them in visible places in the company. These rules are developed together with the trade union organization in the company.

Unfortunately, it is not common practice for these rules to be prominently displayed or be set out in separate clauses in the CLA at the enterprise level. These measures are known to the HR managers, but they are hardly brought to the notice of workers. This is the reason why 2/3 of the respondents are not acquainted with the protection procedures in case they become victims of sexual harassment, with an almost equal polarization between the public and private sectors.

Besides, a small proportion of the respondents know about the existence of a company document which explicitly prohibits SHW. Such prohibitions are detailed in the Internal Rules of Procedure and Discipline (14.4%), in the Code of Ethics for Conduct (22.4%), in the CLA (6.4%).

42.4% of the respondents do not know that there is a document in the company, which explicitly forbids SHW and another 24% are categorical that there is no such document. This means that in the mainstream practice this problem is not given the necessary importance at company level, the phenomenon and procedures for protection are not known, and they are not written out in a company document.

The answers about lack of procedures to be performed in cases of SHW reporting at company level or ignorance about such procedures, dominate. Only 11% of the respondents say that an impartial hearing is held in case of reporting and 15% of the respondents share that the confidentiality of the reporting person is ensured. For 26.4% of the respondents there is no specific person (unit/department) in the company responsible for conducting of procedures in case of reported SHW and another 67.2% do not know that there is a person (unit/department) responsible for conducting of the relevant procedures.

Nearly 56% of the respondents are categorical that in their company/organization, there is no box for anonymous signals in cases of violence, and about 23.2% do not know if there is one.

Respondents say that in case of SHW they would turn to or suggest to victims to seek support and advice from management (32%), HRM (20%), a lawyer (36%) and the police (35.2%). According to 11.2% of the respondents, victims are afraid to report such cases. These data give us grounds to claim that

the victims of SHW are more inclined to seek help from an external institution rather than within the company.

At the heart of this are the economic and social consequences that would follow from the abuser's reverse reaction.

The lack of preventive measures at the company level is worrying.

More than half of the surveyed persons (56.8%) do not know that there are such measures at company/ organizational level, while 1/4 are completely categorical that there are none. Only 16.8% know about the existence of such preventive measures, written out in the internal regulations, in the collective agreements, etc.

As expected, the media are the most popular source of information about the existence and management of SHW situations (48.8%). This means that the way in which the media present such information (either in an objective and informative-neutral way, without discriminatory or misleading elements in the messages, or with elements of neglect of people in one way or another), is an important factor for gradually overcoming certain types of violence and sexual harassment, or vice versa – for reinforcing stereotypes and discriminatory practices.

One of the first steps for prevention is to train management and staff how to recognize the forms of SHW, the symptoms of violent behaviour and how to manage aggressive conduct.

Every second of the respondents would like to take part in training on this subject.

The focus of the content should include topics related to raising awareness about the phenomenon of SHW and its harmful consequences (70%), the current national legislative framework (61.7%), company procedures and mechanisms for signals and complaints (61.7%). In order to improve the protection against SHW, every second respondent relies on a strong and clear company policy on the subject.

More than 1/3 expect more information campaigns for prevention to increase sensitivity to the problem, and according to 1/4 more training of employees is needed, as well as more trade union initiative for protection and prevention (16.8%) and more initiative on the part of Working Conditions Committees (19.2 %).


The content of this publication represents the views of the author only and is his/her sole responsibility. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.



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