Israel’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Law may not specifically criminalize sexual harassment that creates a hostile environment, but the phenomenon exists and is widespread in many workplaces. Surprisingly, the problem is most prevalent in “young” companies and creative offices, which maintain hostile work environments fraught with sexual innuendo and even blatant sexual comments and behavior. The Israeli media recently saw reports of widespread sexual harassment at several leading advertising companies in Israel. According to the reports, sexual innuendo is an integral part of the work environment at these companies. Making explicit sexual language the norm in a company, passing nude photos among company employees, and loudly telling sexual jokes in work areas are just a part of everyday office life.
Toxic work culture
In recent months, several major gaming companies in the United States have been at the center of a media frenzy regarding hostile work environments. Well-known gaming company Activision Blizzard (creators of the popular games “World of Warcraft” and “Call of Duty”) has beautiful, glittering offices with many perks and a relatively young workforce, typical of many high-tech companies. But Activision Blizzard also has a dark side. A lawsuit was recently filed against the company alleging that management did nothing to prevent widespread sexual harassment at the company. The complaint equates the work environment to that of a “fraternity house,” including office talk about sexual relations and jokes about rape, as well as male employees (most of whom are drunk) who habitually gang around the office with women and make lewd comments about them .
This isn’t Activision Blizzard’s first lawsuit for failing to prevent sexual harassment. The state of California had already sued the company six months ago for sexual harassment and discrimination. The state claimed that the company’s offices “provide fertile ground for harassment and discrimination against women.” It has been alleged that female employees are constantly being asked to fend off sexual comments and advances, which is typical behavior there.
A widespread, persistent phenomenon
The working environment at Activision Blizzard is not untypical for the gaming industry. In late December 2021, Riot Games agreed to pay a total of $100 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed by former employees (Riot Games is one of the largest and leading companies in the gaming industry and the creator of the popular game League of Legends”). As early as 2018, reports surfaced of numerous incidents of alleged sexual harassment at Riot Games. Incidents ranged from sexist remarks to lists of female employees with whom they wanted to have sexual relations. Male employees at Riot Games commonly passed photos of genitals and sending out widespread emails commenting on their co-workers’ physiques and discussing sex with them.The work environment was full of sexual content, according to both male and female employees, part of the company’s “bro culture.” .
The assumption that today, in the #MeToo era, sexual harassment that is so open and lewd is no longer happening and was a problem of previous generations is proving wrong. As recent court cases show, a degrading and toxic work environment can “blossom” in gleaming modern offices with a relatively young workforce. A hostile work environment created by constant engagement with sex is a form of sexual harassment.
Not only in America
Israeli law also addresses such hostile work environments. The 1998 Sexual Harassment Prevention Act does not specifically address sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment. The law considers “sexual harassment,” suggestions or reprimands “directed at an individual.” However, the Israeli Supreme Court and Labor Courts recognize sexual harassment, which takes the form of speech and actions directed at the general workforce and poisoning the workplace atmosphere.
In the late 1990s, the Israeli Supreme Court referred to hostile work environments caused by such sexual harassment. In a ruling on a professor at Kibbutzim College who sexually harassed a student, the court found that using language laden with sexual content and showing pornographic photos in the workplace can also be considered sexual harassment.
The Supreme Court made similar findings a few years later when it ruled that sexual harassment need not be directed at a specific person. According to the court, sexual harassment can also take the form of comments or actions “intended to attract the attention of the target of the harassment, even if they do not relate specifically to that person.” In this case, the manager of a public organization that works with the army to advise discharged soldiers commonly used sexual language and told lewd jokes to the unit’s female soldiers. There he introduced himself as a sexologist to the soldiers stationed there and asked them intimate questions. The manager also had sexually explicit photos hanging in his office.
The limits of sexual harassment
Over the next several years, the Supreme Court and labor tribunals delineated the boundaries of the anti-harassment work environment instigated by sexual harassment. The courts have repeatedly held that an uninhibited and carefree atmosphere, in which it is common to laugh at sexual content and use vulgar language, cannot be justified. The court ruled that this was indeed a form of sexual harassment. That was the verdict in relation to a high school teacher who used to tell vulgar jokes and make comments of a sexual nature to students and carers on annual school trips. This was also the conclusion reached by a hospital administrator who regularly told lewd jokes during nursing training sessions.
A few years ago, the National Labor Court dealt with a case in which a department head at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon sexually harassed a junior medical secretary. For eight years, beginning in 1999, the department head shared with her explicit details of his private life (including his sexual relationships), discussed various sexual issues with her, and showed her sexual photos and videos on his office computer.
In August 2018, the court ruled that this behavior constituted sexual harassment of the female employee. According to the ruling, despite the fact that the harasser did not directly refer to the employee’s body or sexuality, the harasser created a hostile work environment by subjecting the employee to sexual remarks and content against her will and in a disrespectful manner. This case has garnered a lot of media attention, and with good reason. The National Labor Court broadened the interpretation of sexual harassment and introduced a new standard of behavior in the workplace.
The responsibility of the employer
It is important to remember that sexual harassment in the workplace does not only affect the complainant and the accused. In Israel, employers are required to take various measures to prevent sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace. This obligation includes preventing a hostile workplace.
In this context, employers are obliged to ensure that their employees do not spread any objectionable content in the work environment. The employer has a duty to ensure that conversations in the workplace remain respectful, including through internal communication channels. Being a responsible adult is not easy and it undoubtedly requires significant effort. But at the end of the day, this effort pays off for everyone, creates a comfortable and safe work environment for all employees, and helps the employer avoid onerous lawsuits, such as the recent lawsuits and class action lawsuits brought against Activision Blizzard and Riot Games.