With recent high profile cases in industries ranging from entertainments to politics to charities, it’s impossible for businesses to consider the handling of sexual harassment in the workplace as a low priority.
Evidence from an Equality and Human Rights Commission report shows a lack of reporting does not mean sexual harassment has not occurred. Many of the high-profile cases coming to light now are historic or on-going. The #MeToo campaign has been used by many to share their own experiences of harassment, again in many situations unreported.
Widespread cultural issues are causing a block to reporting, the report found very few employers able to evidence they had effective processes to prevent harassment. Inconsistent responses to reports of harassment, including no action being taken and victimisation of those reporting harassment. This is made worse by attitudes such as victim blaming, expecting the victim to deal with it themselves, and Managers not being supportive to the situation.
The report found the perpetrators of harassment were most commonly senior colleagues. Harassment is about power and control, behaviour that is unwanted and makes the receiver feel uncomfortable. Power and control comes from persistence, when they know their behaviour is making someone feel uncomfortable and continue anyway to assert that power. It is this power imbalance along with the individual having an untouchable status that deters anyone from reporting, often having the same effect on witnesses as victims.
Research also showed harassment by customers or service users was common and dealt with particularly poorly. In the hospitality industry for example, it was often viewed as part of the job and staff were expected to put up with it.
Under the Equality Act 2010 employers are responsible for all acts of harassment by one employee to another unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent it. These steps should include having an effective policy, appropriate procedures in place and taking action. However, The Equality and Human Rights Commission found only a small minority of employers who responded to their survey were doing this. Only one third of employers provided any information to customers or service users about their expected behaviour towards staff.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission have recommended changes to the law including, restricting confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements, extending tribunal time limits and a statutory code of practice. However, they have also made a number of recommendations that employers can do now to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace:
- An anti-harassment policy that is separate from a diversity policy and includes a specific reporting procedure. This reporting procedure should be separate from the grievance procedure and recognise the specific support a victim of harassment may require.
- Promotion of the policy and reporting procedures, including during induction and regular communication such as anti-harassment promotion periods and posters.
- Training for staff on expected levels of behaviour and reporting procedures as well as training for Managers on dealing with reports of harassment and supporting victims. Training should cover specific examples of harassment and be delivered to all levels of management. Training delivered only to middle management can result in a feeling of lip service with those managers not being supported to follow through their learning.
- Larger employers should consider anonymous reporting tools, such as external providers of helplines.
- Handling of complaints must be unbiased and top down. Responding to complaints of harassment cannot sit solely with HR. A culture of not accepting harassment comes from the board.
- Procedures must cover preventing victimisation of those reporting harassment as well as preventing harassment. This must be recognised at board level, with a clear no tolerance message.
- Support should be provided to the victims both during the investigation and after, both in terms of supporting them to deal with what they have experienced and to keep the lines of communication open to report any victimisation.
Article last updated: 25 November 2019
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