Helen Talalaev: “33% of women and 17% of men in Estonia have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.”

I mentally designated 2023 as the year of sexual harassment because it was the problem employers most often approached EHRC about. They sought advice on how to handle cases of sexual harassment, how to create a system to assure employees that their experience deserves attention and that the employer will take steps to restore a safe work environment.

The same bottleneck is also highlighted by a 2023 relationship study commissioned by the Statistical Office, which revealed that 33% of women and 17% of men in Estonia have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Among women aged 18–29, more than half have experienced sexual harassment at work!

How to attract and retain good employees?

The experience of 2023 well illustrates the changing job market in Estonia. Employers are increasingly striving to create an environment where people’s diversity is noticed, valued, and included, regardless of visible or invisible differences or peculiarities. In this way, employers are shaping a modern work culture that employees increasingly value and expect.

The employer branding agency Instar has for 14 years consecutively studied factors in workplace choice. In 2023, students rated equal and fair treatment of employees as the most important out of 50 offered factors. At EHRC, with the help of Turu-uuringute AS, we have been researching for years how much valuing diversity and equal treatment plays a role in the image of an attractive employer – if in 2012, 37% of respondents considered this important, last year it was already 69%. The same number of respondents prefer such an employer when applying for jobs.

Valuing diversity and inclusion has become a strategic advantage in business. Such a work culture helps ensure that people want to work for the company, are motivated, and effective. Also, diverse and inclusive teams are more innovative and creative. Studies also show that equal participation of women in decision-making and management makes organizations more successful and profitable.

Is this a problem unique to Estonia?

Workplace diversity means the visible and invisible peculiarities and differences of people. Is the employee male or female? Transgender or nonbinary? What is their age, nationality, mother tongue, skin color? Do they wish to form a relationship with someone of the same or different sex? Do they have any additional or special needs? What is their religion and political worldview? Even family obligations, such as caring for a young child or an adult family member, along with the need for greater flexibility, can bring valuable experiences. One might ask why all this should interest an employer? The answer is simple: even the ideal employee is primarily a person. None of us can leave our so-called “other” life at the door when we come to work. If we can be ourselves at work, valued, cared for, and considered, then we feel better there, we are motivated, creative, and bold.

Alongside sexual harassment, there are other issues that show that the situation on the Estonian labor market is not always commendable. The gender pay gap was 17.7% in 2022. Among the 247 members of the boards of Estonia’s top 100 revenue-generating companies, there are only 23 women (data from 2023). A 2022 study found that age very strongly affects one’s position in the labor market – 38% of those aged 50-59 and 61% of those aged 60-69 consider their age a barrier to success in the labor market.

According to the Statistical Office, Estonia is home to an increasing number of different nationalities each year. At the same time, the recent integration monitoring revealed that 33% of residents of other nationalities often feel that they are treated intolerantly due to their nationality. 64% of residents of other nationalities and 40% of Estonians believe that Estonians have better opportunities for professional careers and getting better jobs than people of other nationalities. These numbers show that creating a more equal society still requires considerable effort from both employers and every individual themselves. Differences and peculiarities of people can be eye-opening, but also raise the question of how much an employer needs to accommodate the desires or needs of people from different cultural backgrounds, family models, health, or ages. The solution is often again in openness and readiness to learn to find functional solutions for everyone. If the prejudices and misunderstandings arising from differences are not addressed, it can result in workplace bullying and discrimination, and damaged relationships and reputation. Therefore, conscious, thoughtful, and coordinated action is an important step towards a more empathetic and healthier work culture and ultimately society.

Diverse work culture is becoming the norm

In Estonia, more and more employers understand and value diversity from the perspective of their employees, partners, and clients. In startups, diversity is often taken for granted, the financial sector and telecommunications also show an example, but meaningful changes have also been made in manufacturing and retail. Nearly 200 Estonian employers have joined the diversity agreement or received the “Respecting Differences” label, because they have made more decisions and changes in creating a diverse and inclusive work culture than the average. In fact, every organization can start by noticing its employees to create a work environment where people can be themselves and express boldly if they need somewhat different solutions or approaches to realize their potential. Logistics companies are increasingly understanding that logistics is not just a man’s domain. Companies involved in warehousing or manufacturing have learned that women can successfully handle forklift driving. Even in physical work, it is possible to ensure that those who want to do it are not left out.

Companies and organizations that want to remain competitive must strive to create a fair and inclusive environment. This involves considering people’s diversity everywhere: in setting goals, management, recruitment, promotion, offering development opportunities, creating work conditions, and organizational culture. In an inclusive work environment, cooperation and free expression are possible. This means supporting, respecting, and valuing each other. These principles and changes help create a more dynamic and innovative work culture, which is essential for success in the 21st-century global economic environment.

This requires more than just signing a diversity agreement, although that is a very good first step. It also requires continuous self-analysis, open communication, and readiness to learn and change. At EHRC we provide knowledge, skills, and practical tools and bring employers together so they can learn from each other’s experiences. This is an ongoing process that is also evolving and full of corrections. Powered by the experiences gained, we grow better every day.

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