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Inappropriate behavior in the workplace

In brief

Sexually transgressive behavior in the workplace — until recently, it was taboo to talk about it. However, overnight, that taboo was broken.

Paradoxically, The Voice gave women a voice, loud and clear. The government must have felt the same way: we can’t ignore it anymore. Two days after the departure of Ajax managing director Marc Overmars for sexually transgressive behavior, the government rightly came up with heavy artillery. Thus, the first government commissioner on sexual cross-border behavior was a fact — Mariëtte Hamer was appointed. The question is why the government is not immediately including bullying, discrimination and racism in the workplace in Hamer’s new position. Is this commissioner really going to push the House of Representatives and the government to introduce laws that will effectively eliminate transgressive behavior in all workplaces in the Netherlands? Protocols based on existing legislation do not help, as the numerous verdicts of judges also show.

An anthology: a colleague who tries to kiss the receptionist on the mouth without being asked; young male traders who play music such as “Jerk It Out,” “Sexy Lady” and “Bitch Please II” and are guilty of unwanted groping, sexually intimidating gestures, noises, unwelcome jokes and intimidating bullying behavior; a sous chef unwittingly touching an on-call employee; a manager of a large supermarket chain bullying and intimidating an employee; an executive throwing files at an employee; or an employee of a notary’s office having to do the work in a basement, isolated from colleagues and without a phone.

So, what helps? Addressing each other? However, that’s not easy. “Hello, Peter, that joke you just made to Ellen, are you aware that she can take it quite differently?” Peter often thinks, “Yes, that’s Ellen’s problem”. And that’s the way it is, because Peter is the boss. How are you going to change that? How are you really going to bring about that cultural change? It takes time, but it can be done.

How are we going to prevent that when women confront men, they are not put in the corner of a nagging or humorless bitch? That is a challenge and it takes guts from women. Isn’t that strange? Shouldn’t the solution lie with the men? If the solution must lie with the men, then a law works. If you cross a line, then you are punished, you are fired after one misstep. That leaves nothing to be desired in terms of clarity. That is often not the case under the present law. It is not allowed, but yes, there is such a long period of employment that dismissal is considered too harsh a remedy.

We take the liberty of giving the new government commissioner four recommendations.

First, don’t just focus on sexually transgressive behavior in the workplace, but also address harassment, discrimination and bullying in the workplace. What all of these forms of undesirable behavior have in common, is that they thrive in a culture of fear, where holding each other accountable for undesirable behavior is not commonplace. In this respect, we also advise to be ahead of the curve and not only take into account the physical world but also look into universal digital workspaces in the metaverse. Particularly now that as a result of COVID-19 the global workforce is working remotely and several companies already started experimental initiatives with a view to virtual reality in the workplace.

Second, oblige employers to put a written policy into practice. For example, by concretely mapping out the risks and discussing them during recurring (internal) workshops or training sessions, so that calling each other to account for wrong behavior becomes just as “normal” as asking how someone’s weekend was. Create a toolkit for the employer to work with. Since 1 January 2022, there has been a “women’s” quota for supervisory directors in the business world. As far as we are concerned, those commissioners have as much responsibility on this issue as the government commissioner.

Third, create a diverse workplace. Diversity contributes to an inclusive organization and an open culture. When you think about diversity and inclusiveness, don’t just think about hiring policies but also other aspects, such as when you organize an office team outing. If you’re going to troll through the mud, don’t be surprised or upset that women, in general, will probably find that a little less fun. If you are hosting a party where there will be dancing, send an email around shortly before it starts reminding everyone of their responsibilities.

And finally, yet importantly, include it in teaching materials at schools and thus prepare children for working life.

Please visit our Compliance Checker for more guidance or contact us. 


Mirjam de Blécourt has been repeatedly recognized by top legal directories as one of the leading labor and employment lawyers in Europe and the Netherlands. She leads Baker McKenzie’s Amsterdam Employment and Pensions Law practice group and is member of the Firm's European Employment Group Steering Committee. Furthermore Mirjam is a former board member of Baker McKenzie's Amsterdam office. Mirjam has always been very active in the diversity and inclusion sphere, both outside and inside Baker McKenzie. She currently serves as chair of the supervisory board for Rutgers (international centre of expertise on (women’s) health and rights). Additionally she serves as senator of VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy) in the Dutch Senate. Mirjam joined Baker McKenzie in 1990 and has been a partner since 1999.


Danielle advises multinationals and provides services across the entire spectrum of employment and employee participation law. Danielle has a strong winning track record in the field of employment litigation and won several significant court cases for multinational clients. Most recently, she assisted a multinational in a court case in which the employee submitted a claim to the court of approximately EUR 400,000. The court rejected the claim and in the ruling specifically pointed out the extensive and thorough defense.

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