University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


No more dirty jokes: UCPH to introduce zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment

Harassment — The University of Copenhagen is now to introduce a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment and other violations. The Danish government is also to amend the Law on Equal Treatment so that a casual workplace atmosphere can no longer be a mitigating factor.

Employees, managers and students at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) who tend towards using a casual choice of language in relation to sex, will now find it more difficult to harass colleagues, employees or students.

If they do not moderate their language, they risk being the subject of a harassment case, as UCPH has now introduced a new set of guidelines for zero tolerance on violations of a sexual nature.

You now need to think carefully before you make a ‘festive’ comment.

Joan Lykkeaa, joint union representative


At the same time, the Danish government has presented a new bill that means that a casual atmosphere in the workplace will no longer be a mitigating factor in assessing cases of sexual harassment.

It appears in the UCPH guidelines that violations include sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of any kind on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability.

It is irrelevant whether it takes place physically, verbally or in writing, including in electronic form, it states.

Examples of sexual harassment that are mentioned include unwelcome hints involving sexual connotations in the form of obscene stories, jokes, comments about appearance, or showing of pornographic images.

Boundary lines have shifted

Examples of sexual harassment

Unwanted physical contact, touches, slaps, squeezes, pinches, caresses or the like.

Unwelcome sexual innuendo like obscene stories, jokes, comments about appearance, and harsh verbal assaults.

Proposals, expectations, or requests, of sexual favours.

Obscene and compromising offers or invitations to sexual intercourse.

Display of pornographic images.

Physical assaults

Source: The staff guide on handling sexual harassment and other harassment behaviour on KUnet

According to Lisbeth Møller, Deputy Director of HR at UCPH, it will be the employee’s or the student’s experience of being subjected to offensive behaviour, which will the starting point. This, even if the person who harasses had no intention to harass.

“Zero tolerance means that offensive behaviour is not accepted at UCPH. Management has a duty to react when it becomes aware of cases. All employees who feel that they are being been violated, have the right to say no. The same applies to colleagues who overhear a situation which they perceive as offensive,” she writes in a reply by email.

Joan Lykkeaa, joint union representative for HK lab technicians at UCPH, has been a member of the committee that has drafted the new guidelines.

You now need to think carefully before you make a ‘festive’ comment.

Joan Lykkeaa adds that UCPH as a workplace has changed over the past ten years, so it has become more multicultural. This requires clear guidelines on how employees behave towards each other.

“We have different ways of acting in the public space, depending on which country you come from “We’ve used more casual language in Denmark in the past, but we will probably have to limit ourselves. Because we humans have different boundaries, also in this area,” she says.

Management responsibility to intervene

In serious cases that end up in the courts, the defendant can look forward to finding it harder to be acquitted.

Minister of Employment Troels Lund Poulsen (V) has proposed amending the Equal Treatment Act stating that the casual atmosphere of a workplace should be no mitigating factor in assessing cases.

“There should be no doubt that sexual harassment is illegal, and you can’t just use the excuse that there is a particular atmosphere in the workplace. At the same time, I encourage employers to look critically at the culture of the workplace. If it in any way seems offensive, it is management’s responsibility to intervene immediately,” Troels Lund Poulsen said at the release of the Bill.

The Danish government will also increase the compensation due to employees who have been subjected to sexual harassment with one third, so the average payout increases from DKK 25,000 to more than DKK 33,000.

No more saying ‘blow doll’

Lise Rolandsen Agustin, associate professor at the Centre for Gender Studies at Aalborg University has been involved in investigating case law in connection with sexual harassment.

The researchers have found almost 100 cases settled by courts, boards of disputes, boards on equal treatment and arbitration tribunals in the period 1989-2016.

In general, the fear of saying no is greater in industries with many temporary appointments. So in this way universities are similar to, for example, the acting profession.

Lise Rolandsen Agustin, associate professor at the Centre for Gender Studies.

In a number of cases, the ruling was based on the fact that there was a more ‘casual tone of language’ or an informal atmosphere at the workplace, and there was therefore no sexual harassment.

In one case, a baker had baked a loaf of bread so it was shaped like a penis and told jokes with a sexual content, but the court ruled that the female employee could not be construed being the subject of sexual harassment in the situation.

In another case, a female hairdressing intern was called “daddy’s little dyke girl” – (in Danish, ‘fars lille lebbepige’ )- and “daddy’s blow doll” – (in Danish, ‘fars lille suttetøs’) – by her male manager, who also showed pornographic images on his computer, and once she was asked to open a package which contained a dildo.

The Tvisthedsnævnet board of dispute emphasised that the intern had contributed to the casual atmosphere, and did not find that the use of the word “blow doll” could be considered harassment.

“In these kinds of cases, I expect a change in legal practice, as a casual tone will no longer be considered an excuse,” says Lise Rolandsen Agustin.

Has to make a decision

It is doubtful, according to Lise Rolandsen Agustin, that the amendment will have a preventive effect.

The Danish government has, in its bill, not increased employers’ responsibility for protecting employees against sexual harassment. And the proposal does not include an increase in requirements to prevent it from happening in the first place.

“It is clear that a stricter employer liability would have had a greater effect, but I think that you as employer now need to have a dialogue with employees about the casual tone of language that you want. You can’t just have a relaxed attitude towards this, and say that we have always talked to each other like this at this workplace,” she says.

This is how many employees are harassed at UCPH

It is unknown exactly how many employees and students are the victims of sexual harassment at UCPH. But in connection with the latest workplace assessment (APV) in 2016, where 6,853 employees replied to a questionnaire, 87 people, corresponding to 1 per cent of employees, said they were subjected to unwanted sexual attention.

76 per cent said that it was from a colleague, 19 per cent said that it was from a manager, and 5 per cent said that the undesired attention came from a subordinate, a student or from patients/clients.

3 percent of the employees who had completed the questionnaire in English, wrote that they had been subjected to unwanted sexual attention.

Students are being harassed on their student jobs

In the UCPH study environment survey from 2015, 3 per cent of students (427 people) indicated that they had been subjected to bullying or harassment from employees or other students within the past 12 months.

The Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM) found in a survey with 1,017 student responses earlier this year, that 11 per cent of female students had experienced unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing at their student jobs.

A study from the Djøf union with approximately 2,200 responses, also from 2018, indicated that a bit more than 5 per cent of female and 1 per cent of male students had been subjected to sexual harassment at work in the past year.

According to Lise Rolandsen Agustin, associate professor at the Centre for Gender Studies at Aalborg University, the responses depend on how the question is formulated.

If you ask general, widely formulated, questions like “have you been subjected to unwanted sexual attention”, as in connection with the UCPH workplace assessment, 1-2 percent typically respond with a yes.

If you ask about specific forms of sexual harassment like touching and so forth, then upwards of 10 per cent respond with a yes.

She says that nothing suggests that sexual harassment is less widespread at the university than at other workplaces.

“In general, the fear of saying no, because of the risk of reprisals, is greater in industries with many temporary appointments. So in this way universities are similar to, for example, the acting profession,” says Lise Rolandsen Agustin.

Language can be crass at UCPH

Signe Møller Johansen, joint union representative for the technical-administrative (TAP) staff at UCPH, reckons that the most recent workplace assessment survey corresponds quite well with reality.

“It shows that it is not a widespread problem at this university. Fortunately. At the same time we should not rest on our laurels and think that everything is good, and that we do not need to do more. We have zero tolerance towards sexual harassment at UCPH. And we must therefore always be ready to listen, support and help in the event of cases turning up,” she says.

She adds that she agrees that the tone in the workplace should not be an excuse to engage in sexual harassment.

“At the same time, it is my experience from specific cases where there are conflicts between employees, that they are often complex. It is virtually never black and white, and there may be several versions of what has happened, and how it should be handled,” she says.

Signe Møller Johansen sees the language used between employees at UCPH as being harsh without necessarily being of a sexual nature.

“There are probably many reasons for this, but some of it is about the fact that people are ambitious and competitive, and that professionally disagreeing is a part of working at university. But this is not an excuse for harassing each other,” she says.