The battle against sexism and harassment at work begins with management

1. September 2021 - Marianne Egelund Siig, CEO, Mannaz og Henrik Dall, Partner hos Valcon Share

Leaders in Danish companies and organisations may have underestimated the extent of the problem with sexism and harassment, but they now have a unique opportunity to change the culture if they are willing to take responsibility for the necessary change.

“We certainly do not suppress or harass anyone at our workplace.” The recent development has made a statement such as this sound hollow. Leaders across the country have looked on stunned as protests from their own and other employees have laid bare the extent of sexism and abusive behaviour. Enough has had enough and have started to give voice to their frustrations.

1,615 women from the media industry and more than 750 women from Denmark’s universities have thus signed a petition on abusive behaviour. Add to this 322 politicians, 284 from unions and almost 800 signatures from doctors. 15% of Denmark’s nurses stated that they had experienced abusive behaviour, and in the Danish Armed Forces, they now have more than 100 cases on abusive behaviour. In a new survey from KVINFO, 44.5% of female respondents in the IT industry answered that they had experienced abusive behaviour, and in a study from 2020, every fourth member of the union HK answered that they had experienced e.g. unwanted touches, inappropriate looks, dirty jokes or sexual comments. And unfortunately, we could go on like is with examples and data.

The point is that we now know that abusive behaviour is an issue at basically all workplaces, probably also at yours.


Perhaps the broad spectrum of abusive behaviour is part of the reason why many leaders have not noticed the extent of the problem, simply because some of the abusive behaviour has gone unnoticed.


What offends?

Sexism means “discrimination due to gender”, and sexual harassment and abusive behaviour covers a wide range of actions with the common denominator that they are not wanted by the recipient. And consequently hurts the welfare of the person at the receiving end. It does not matter if we are talking derogatory comments, exclusion and bullying, sexual harassment or direct physical assault or threats.

Sexism and abusive behaviour at the workplace can take many shapes, and sexism can even be the reason behind a gender imbalance in the management team or with respect to who gets a raise. Perhaps the broad spectrum of abusive behaviour is part of the reason why many leaders have not noticed the extent of the problem, simply because some of the abusive behaviour has gone unnoticed.

We don’t blame you if you are sitting right now, thinking: “But I have never experienced any abusive behaviour in my department.” You probably haven’t, because the abusive behaviour rarely happens to the managers. The power relation is often an important factor when it comes to abusive behaviour. As a manager, you should therefore not count on being able to personally identify and quantify the extent of abusive behaviour in your own organisation without involving the people who may potentially be the victims of this type of behaviour.


It is your job to define how sexism and abusive behaviour is to be prevented and handled and where to go when it does happen.


It takes a village

When it comes to an actual change of culture, the management team needs to take the lead – but not go alone. Sexism and abusive behaviour are best overcome if we handle the challenge as a joint process where everyone takes responsibility, both as a team and individually. This is how you succeed with culture change. It begins with you. And it concerns us all.

However, it is also crucial for any cultural change that the executive team, managers and HR define the framework and drive the process. It is your job to define how sexism and abusive behaviour is to be prevented and handled and where to go when it does happen. There should be clearly defined agreements and clearly defined roles. How do we prevent it from happening? Who does what when it does happen?


It is crucial that you get everybody on board for the journey, manager colleagues as well as employees.


Cultural change requires a new mindset

It is difficult to have an out-side view of yourself as part of a culture, irrespective of whether you are a manager or an employee. So what do you do as manager with a culture that allows abusive behaviour? It is crucial that you get everybody on board for the journey, manager colleagues as well as employees. Also make sure to involve those stakeholders that you are in frequent and personal contact with. They can also affect and be affected by your culture. And remember that you only have everybody onboard when no one is in doubt that you are 100% committed to creating the desired culture.

The cultural change requires a change in mindset. The idea that “I am sure everything is okay, and I have never received any complaints about my behaviour” or “How come we can no longer have any fun during the Friday bar?” should be shifted to “I respect the integrity of others and take responsibility for their well-being just as I am clear about my own limits”.

This journey will take time, but you can achieve results even in the short term if you approach the process the right way from the get-go.

Process for cultural development

1. Planning and mapping phase
Be aware of what it is you want to achieve and the process this will take. Consider whether there is a need to act very quickly and very clearly in the short term because people’s well-being is in jeopardy.

However, don’t let the need for speedy action overshadow the need for a more long-term cultural development that will prevent future incidents.

Understand who is to ultimately create the desired culture through new behaviour and make sure that all these individuals are represented in the group that is to drive the development going forward. Know your baseline, e.g. through an anonymous employee survey or through individual or focus group interviews. Use data on representation about gender, age groups, nationalities, etc. to learn more about exactly how inclusive and diverse your culture is.

2. Development and implementation phase

Taking a point of departure in your current situation, it is important to communicate clearly your vision on the behaviour you want to see in organisation going forward. This can be communicated in very specific terms using ground rules, a codex for desired behaviour.

You can use the Danish Working Environment Authority’s guidelines on abusive actions as groundwork for your own ground rules to ensure that you cover everything. It is also important to have clear procedures, roles and other policies to support both prevention and handling of abusive behaviour. The result of these considerations should be clearly communicated to the entire organisation in combination with the description of the desired behaviour. Training courses for managers with managerial responsibilities, HR and employee representatives would also support the desired culture development.

Make sure that there are plenty of opportunities for local dialogues on the desired vs. unwanted behaviour. Anyone can agree that explicit examples of highly abusive behaviour and abuse are inexcusable, but what about the kind of behaviour that we may not even regard as offensive? What about the colleague who constantly refers to his female colleagues as “his girls”? What about the colleague that every day complements the looks of a specific colleague? What about the colleague that is never invited to lunch? The concept “micro behaviour” covers the types of behaviours that we may not even regard as abusive if it only happens once or twice, but which will end of being very harmful if it is repeated frequently in the long term and is perhaps targeted at specific individuals.

3. Evaluation and follow-up phase

When the purpose is culture development, it is by no means certain that you get your process and content just right the first time when it comes to creating the desired results. It is a complex task to change a culture, but it can be done.

Make sure to follow up on progress and results, and be ready to adjust your initiatives, supplement with new initiatives to stay on course and to celebrate your progress. If you started out with an employee survey, it would be the obvious choice to repeat this survey every 12 months and to use this survey to ascertain whether you are on the right track or if you need to roll out further initiatives.

Take the first step

At Mannaz we have plenty of experience helping organisations approach better gender balances, greater diversity, and increased inclusion in a more targeted manner.

Some organisations are already well on their way, but still seek a more strategic and structured approach. Others need to work with their culture and the consciousness of their leaders and employees.

We can help in both ends of the spectrum. Read more here.

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Marianne Egelund Siig

Marianne has over decades worked professionally with gender equality, diversity, and inclusion. She has created great value within these areas in her positions as Head of Diversity and Inclusion in Nordea, as a member of advisory boards, as a speaker at conferences and academic seminars, as a participant in panel debates, as partner for several think tanks and as a part of the steering committee for CBS’s Diversity and Difference Platform. Additionally, Marianne has for several years written for Berlingske Business and Point of View International about management, gender equality, and diversity. Read some of Marianne’s inspiring articles here.

Contact Marianne at or +45 4517 6000

Henrik Dall

Henrik Dall has more than 30 years of work experience, where 25 of these have been in managing positions. For the last 25 years, Henrik has worked as a management consultant. He particularly focuses on facilitating value-creating transformations through leadership development, change management, culture development as well as strategy development and implementation.