Harassment and inappropriate behaviour at work.

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team. 

It is a sad fact that, many media sites today contain daily news stories of rapes and sexual abuse. Whilst these issues are regularly highlighted, including with shocking statistics, the problem is not being resolved. From where such behaviour originates, remains unaddressed – It is a societal issue, and more and more, an institutional one.

Gender inequality, and more generally the discriminatory way men treat women, is part of the underlying problem. Much of the unequal bias, which favours men, has been visible in EU institutions and other public offices over several decades. It has been raising its ugly head slowly, and especially since the #MeToo movement. EU bodies are desperate to show that they are dealing with the multiple allegations that are now surfacing, rather than considering the foundations on which such actions have been allowed to develop and propagate. Correcting the systematic processes which allow abuse to continue must be a priority if the Commission and other EU bodies are to eradicate harassment and abuse.

Take for example the European Commission, which has recently launched an internal staff survey “in order to have a clear picture on situations of harassment and inappropriate behaviour at work and their development within the current COVID-19 crisis.” The Central Staff Committee has launched its survey, expressing concern about staff’s health and well-being, in “this unprecedented period [where] we have seen our private and professional lives change radically ….it has triggered different working habits and an all-new relationship between management and staff. In this period that the ‘new normal’ is being designed, it is essential to pay special attention to phenomena of abuse and inappropriate behaviours within the Commission services.”

Firstly, harassment and inappropriate behaviour, whilst they have increased under Covid, are not impacts of Covid. Harassment and inappropriate behaviour within EU institutions has been evident since the start of the institutions, its just that no one chose to deal with them. Secondly, it is unlikely that staff will respond in full to the survey as it is a known fact that a “black list” of staff who complain is circulated amongst the human resource departments of institutions. Amongst the institutions where there have been cases of complaints, staff have been moved from one institution to another in exchange for their silence. It is also a well known fact that nothing remains confidential within the EU institutions, not even for the protection of whistleblowers.

Within the corridors of power, it is often not gossip that staff share amongst themselves but warnings of caution : “Director General X is taking his assistant away for the weekend”, “Director Y is preying on the new trainees”, “Head of Unit Z is offering promotions if you sleep with him” …and so it goes on. Despite everyone knowing, nothing is done – This makes everyone complicit! Yet, the answer of the institutions to anyone who dares to complain, is to ask for evidence. Asking for the victim to step forward is a ploy, so that she, and sometimes he, can be targeted and bullied into not complaining “for the sake of their career”. Such processes should not be tolerated and this can be removed by establishing an independent, external body, specifically to deal with harassment and abuse. – However, you can expect it to be inundated with complaints!

Sexual abuse, abuse, and sexual and moral harassment have always been present in EU institutions, and neatly brushed under the carpets of the human resource department and the secretary general. Over the last two years another EU institution, the European Economic and Social Committee, has been doing its best to cover up numerous cases of harassment allegedly committed by one senior member of the Committee. Thirteen cases of moral harassment were noted by OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud body who investigated the complaints of whistleblowers and victims. Yet, despite a code of conduct and financial and management concerns to the Committee, from the European Parliament, the perpetrator remains in post.

The staff committees and the trade unions of the European institutions must not only protect their staff, but must call out perpetrators of abuse, where they are known abusers, and ensure that they are forced to leave the institutions for the protection of everyone. The fact that the male hierarchies club together to protect the abusers, only highlights further, the necessity for an independent external body to deal with complaints.

It is genuinely hoped that the results of the staff survey will provide information so that awareness can be raised and statistics presented. It is also important to remember that you cannot negotiate on policies to protect the dignity of employees and to prevent psychological and sexual harassment – Implement rules that work immediately to protect victims, and not ones which can be manipulated by perpetrators in order for them to continue their crimes.

The EU institutions are those that make the laws and the rules by which citizens live across the European Union. If abuse and harassment is systematic within these bodies, and is not dealt with transparently, what makes these people fit to be European decision makers?

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