Last week, American film producer, Harvey Weinstein, who, after being accused of sexual harassment by more than 80 women in the film industry, was arrested on rape charges in New York City. While the reaction to Weinstein's arrest has been seen as a significant step forward in the battle against sexual harassment, we are shocked and saddened as we learn of new accusations against prominent men.

On May 24 public reports cited renowned actor Morgan Freeman of having been accused of sexual harassment and "inappropriate behavior," including sexually charged remarks and unwanted touching by eight separate women. On May 7th it was publicly reported that former Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman had been accused of physical abuse, in some cases during sex, by multiple women.

A growing list

The list of powerful men accused of sexual harassment continues to grow, according to Anna North, of vox.com. "Over the past year, more than 200 powerful people-- celebritiespoliticiansCEOs, and others --sexual harassment or assault allegations. More survivors are coming forward nearly every day, many of them inspired and emboldened by those who have gone before."

But still, the question, "What is sexual harassment?" is asked by many.  As defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is described as: 

"Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

Seems pretty clear 

According to the New York Times investigative reporter who broke the Weinstein story, there are many unresolved questions that the Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement have highlighted. "How do you have an office romance in 2018 without fear of doing the wrong thing," asks Jodi Kantor in an interview with Trevor Noah. "If a man has been accused of sexual harassment, what is due process even going to mean in that kind of case? I don't think we've settled those kinds of questions. Our society doesn't even really have a common, agreed-upon, definition of sexual harassment," she stated.

Speaking of agreed-upon definitions of sexual harassment

I conducted a survey recently on American perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment and what does not. My study was based on research published in Germany, and I compared the attitudes of respondents in the U.S. with respondents from Germany, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. 

The results are fascinating. It is interesting to note, for example, that the U.S. dissents more radically than Europe in answers to the question "offers a woman sexual favors." I was also interested to see the dramatic variation of responses from France, Denmark, and Finland to the questions around looking at a woman's body and whistling at women. Moreover, how much difference in opinion is expressed, across all countries, when it comes to jokes with sexual content.

What you can do

Clearly, the issue of sexual harassment is one we will all be talking about for some time to come. In the meantime, we work to understand how to move forward in addressing these behaviors and their consequences. If you are struggling with this and wondering what you can do, let me offer you the following five tips:

1) Hold conversations. Ask your colleagues, listen to them, try to understand their perspectives, and empathize with any of their experiences with sexual harassment.

2) Err on the side of caution. Be very careful in your actions and words, especially at work. Be respectful in your behaviors and neutral when using humor.

3) Advocate for respectful discourse. Hold conversations, coffee corner discussions and bring in speakers or moderators to help mediate dialogues.

4) Design policies. As leaders of your organization, create procedures and systems that support inclusion and equal treatment for all.

5) Follow movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo. To fully understand how sexual assault and sexual harassment impacts individuals, organizations and society, make sure you're informed.

Published on: May 31, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.