The Swiss Code of Obligations, the Labor Law and the Equality Law require employers to take measures to protect the personal integrity of their employees. However, companies sometimes struggle to implement these measures. Aner Voloder, head of the KMU Konkret+ prevention program, explains the importance of raising awareness among managers and employees.
A recent report (only in French) by the Federal Council on the extent of the phenomenon in Switzerland indicates that 5% of sexual harassment cases take place in the workplace. And women represent nearly 90% of the victims. The consequences are detrimental, sometimes causing severe physical and psychological suffering. Although movements such as #MeToo have raised awareness and made some progress, it is still essential for companies to be aware of this delicate issue in order to respond to a major social challenge, to which the workplace is not immune. In Zurich, the city's Office of Equality (Fachstelle für Gleichstellung) has designed a dedicated project, called KMU Konkret+ (only in German) specifically aimed at SMEs, which are sometimes unable to properly identify the issue, prevent risks and meet their legal obligations. Aner Voloder, lawyer and creator of the program, explains.
What is the KMU Konkret+ project about?
Aner Voloder: It aims to promote the fight against sexist and sexual harassment that can occur in the professional world, by specifically addressing managers and employees of SMEs. At the same time, it seeks to lift the taboo on a delicate subject and to respond to uncertainties about what precisely constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, which has been prohibited since 1995 by the Federal Law on Equality between Women and Men (only in French) (Art. 4). The entire philosophy of the program is based on a concrete approach to the issue, which is the best way to bring about lasting change in the corporate culture to an approach that is respectful of each and every person.
How is this done?
Voloder: After a theoretical session to remind each employee of his or her rights and duties, KMU Konkret+ offers situational scenarios. Through role-playing, managers learn how to recognize a problematic situation early on, how to prevent it and how to intervene to help those affected if necessary. The short theatrical scenes not only make employees aware of the different forms sexual harassment can take and how to react to it but also prompt them to question their behavior and reflect on the biases that sometimes cause people to downplay the facts.
Is it more a question of prevention or of how a company manager should respond to a specific case?
Voloder: Both of them! KMU Konkret+ offers two different training courses (only in German). The first is designed to remind managers of their legal obligations in terms of prevention, intervention and protection of employees. The second module is aimed at the employees themselves and is designed to inform them of their duties and rights. The program also includes a third phase designed to help SMEs draft or adapt their internal regulations, ensuring that they comply with the legal framework. It is important to remember that harassment does not always come from colleagues, but also customers or partners. In all instances, the employer is legally obliged to address the issue to protect the employees.
Why is it important to address SMEs in particular on these gender-based and sexual harassment issues?
Voloder: Over 99% of companies in Switzerland are SMEs. The most recent studies have shown that SMEs are more exposed to the risk of sexual harassment than larger companies, which have more resources as well as specialized departments and professionals to deal with it. However, SMEs are subject to the same obligations as large organizations. Supporting them is therefore imperative in order to succeed in changing practices and reducing the number of people affected.
How did this program come about and who are you working with?
Voloder: We were largely inspired by the pioneering work of the Office for the Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of Violence (BPEV) in the canton of Geneva on a similar program. We also work with the Department of Equal Opportunity in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden and the Department of Integration in the canton of St. Gallen. Associations, professional unions and experts are also called upon to meet annually to review the development of the program. The first training took place in June 2021 and more than 150 managers and 500 employees from about 20 companies in German-speaking Switzerland have already benefited from KMU Konkret+. A further ten companies will benefit from the program in 2023.
Is financial support in the scheme a decisive factor?
Voloder: Most of the companies that contact us do so without knowing that we offer advantageous conditions. Therefore, cost does not seem to be a decisive factor. The fact that most of the expenses are covered by financial aid through the law on equal opportunities and allows us to offer a training program that ranges between CHF 200 and CHF 1,000, depending on the size of the company, is an obvious advantage, especially in an uncertain economic period.