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Sexual harassment at work is one of the most common forms of harassment. According to workplace experts Acas, examples of this type of unwanted and inappropriate behaviour include:

  • Flirting, gesturing or making sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance
  • Asking questions about someone’s sex life
  • Telling sexually offensive jokes, making sexual comments or jokes about someone’s sexual orientation or gender reassignment
  • Displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual images, or other sexual content
  • Touching someone against their will, for example, hugging them
  • Sexual assault or rape

But whilst this type of behaviour is shocking, what makes it worse are the results of a recent survey of 2,000 employees by Personio. The survey found that one in 10 (10%) of employees have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at work, but half (49%) do not report it.

The main reasons for not reporting it cited:

  • Retaliation (or retribution)
  • A lack of trust in their organisation’s leadership
  • Worries that their anonymity would not be protected.

But perhaps of most concern was the fact that almost a third (30%) believed more would be achieved if they went to the media about workplace misconduct, rather than to their own management team.

Zero tolerance

No organisation is immune to experiencing incidences of sexual harassment, but it’s essential that workplaces are made safer and poor behaviour is called out and not allowed to fester, spread or escalate. Obviously, it’s necessary for employers to embrace a zero-tolerance stance, in addition they should have the following:

  1. An open culture that prioritises trust, transparency and dignity and which enables people to feel safe.
  2. A ‘fit for purpose’ easily accessible policy, with suitable guidance, which clearly articulates the organisation’s commitment to promoting and providing a safe workplace.
  3. An HR, senior management and leadership team who are fully supportive and prepared to listen, believe, address and act upon all information, regardless of the seniority of the perpetrator.
  4. Reliable and trustworthy reporting processes (detailing recognised whistleblowing routes/channels and protection) which actively encourage victims and witnesses to speak out without fear of blame or reprisal.

Setting the tone from the top down

Training is essential for senior leaders, all line managers and employees. This should cover two important areas:

  • Training on respect, equality, diversity and inclusion to help prevent these types of behaviour from happening in the first place.
  • Training on what to do when this behaviour is reported, focusing on boundaries, trust, process, responsibilities and empathy.

Take action

Sexual harassment can make victims feel unsafe and unvalued at work, especially if incidents go unreported, or complaints are not taken seriously. This has knock-on effects on mental health, motivation, team cohesion, collaboration and productivity throughout your organisation. There are also likely to be reputational consequences, which may mean losing out on talent and business.

It’s worth pointing out that as an employer, your duty of care and responsibility for preventing sexual harassment doesn’t stop at the end of the working day, nor at the threshold of your main office building(s). It encompasses all company sites and external work-related events (such as training days and social events), as well as the digital arena. When it comes to harassment, if a complaint is raised and no action is taken to stop the harassment, the employer is likely to be held liable.

How I can help

For advice and support when it comes to policies, processes, procedures and training, please email caroline.robertson@actifhr.co.uk