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Revealed: This is the extent of sexual harassment in Germany’s workplaces

Sexual harassment in German workplaces is rife, a study by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency has found. Are managers doing enough to stop it?

Revealed: This is the extent of sexual harassment in Germany's workplaces
File photo shows a woman at her desk with a man's hand on her back. Sexual harassment is rife in Germany workplaces. Photo: DPA

Inappropriate staring, verbal harassment and unwanted touching: having to put up with this kind of behaviour at work can be severely stressful for victims.

And a new study has found that one in 11 workers – that's nine percent – said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in Germany in the past three years.

More than half (53 percent) of the harassment came from third parties – such as customers, patients and clients, while 43 percent came from colleagues. A total of nine per cent came from superiors or people with a higher level of status, such as managers.

READ ALSO: How a new technology is fighting workplace discrimination in Germany

Women (13 percent) were affected more than twice as often as men (five percent), the findings by the Anti-Discrimination Agency revealed.

More than 1,500 people in employment from across the country were asked about the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and how they deal with it as part of the study.

According to the representative study, verbal harassment, such as sexual comments (62 percent) and inappropriate looks and gestures  (44 percent), were the most common form of harassment among those affected.

About a quarter (26 percent) of those affected experienced unwanted touching or physical contact. Most harassment experiences were not one-off incidents – eight out of ten respondents experienced more than one such situation.

Most experiences were not one-off incidents – eight out of ten respondents were harassed more than once. In addition, more than 80 percent of those affected said that men were the only or predominant perpetrators.

“Sexual harassment at work can have serious consequences for those affected,” said Bernhard Franke, provisional head of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency.

Photo: DPA

READ ALSO: How Berlin's housing crisis leaves women vulnerable to sexual predators

Which sectors are most affected?

There is a risk of sexual harassment in all industries. However, employees in occupational groups who come into contact with customers on a daily basis were most affected. Victims of harassment worked primarily in these industries:

Health and social services: 29 percent

Trade: 12 percent

Manufacturing industry: 11 percent

Education: 10 percent

“When customers harass them, employers must intervene immediately to protect their employees,” said Franke.

The study shows that those affected often perceive sexual harassment as humiliating and derogatory as well as a threatening experience.

READ ALSO: 'I get mansplained regularly': Do Berlin's startups have a sexism problem?

For example, 48 percent of the women affected said that they felt humiliated and devalued by the harassment. The figure for men was 28 percent.

Meanwhile, 41 percent of women and 27 percent of men reported moderate to very severe psychological stress. And 30 percent of women and 21 percent of men said the situation resulted in medium to severe stress.

While two thirds of the respondents stated they fought back verbally after the harassment, four out of ten people affected only turned to third parties later.

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The people they confided in included:

Colleagues: 47 percent

Superiors: 36 percent

Friends or family: 15 percent

Counselling centres or therapeutic facilities: 11 percent

Managers need to take responsibility

Around 40 percent of employees do not know whether their company has its own complaints office at all – although employers are legally obliged to set up such offices and inform employees about them.

The authors of the study said managers had to take responsibility and inform their employees about what the procedures are, as well as regular checking up on their staff to make sure they are not suffering in silence.

READ ALSO: What does #MeToo campaign reveal about work culture in Germany?

“It is in the interest of companies to intervene here by means of clear guidelines and measures to prevent sexual harassment – for example by appointing permanent contact persons and offering obligatory training for managers,” said Franke.

Just one percent of those affected by sexual harassment at work took legal action themselves, the research found.

Some victims said they had chosen not to bring a case forward because they didn't feel well informed, they were worried about not being anonymous or they were stressed about negative consequences. Others said they attempted to solve the problem themselves.

A similar study by the anti-discrimination agency in 2015 found that every sixth women and every 14th man felt they had been a victim of sexual harassment at work.

To find organizations who provide counselling and support on discrimination cases visit  the Antidiskriminierungsverband Deutschland.

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For members


7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.