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Breaking the silence on sexual harassment

Elizabeth McGlone, partner at Milton Keynes-based Neves Solicitors, looks at how more emphasis should be made on personal interactions when developing workplace policies.

Despite over a quarter of women surveyed saying they have experienced sexism and sexual harassment at work, the problem is still widely unreported.

According to a recent poll from Opinium Research of 2,000 men and women, one in five women said that they had been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

With 58% of women and 43% of men not reporting it to their employer, it seems that men are more inclined to report sexual harassment.

Of those who had reported it, a third of women said their cases were not followed up by senior management and a fifth were not even acknowledged.

The Equality Act of 2010’s definition of harassment describes the behaviour of the perpetrator as having "the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them." While the legislation is easy to understand and strengthens protection in some situations, the statistics demonstrate that there is still some way to go in managing the problem.

Recently speaking on this issue when the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a series of proposals on how to protect people at work, Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath commented "We need urgent action to turn the tables in British workplaces, shifting from the current culture of people risking their jobs and health in order to report harassment, to placing the onus on employers to prevent and resolve it."

Employers have a legal responsibility for the safety of their employees and the majority of UK businesses do provide basic employment rights. Despite this, due to fear of intimidation and feeling that the situation will only get worse afterwards, many employees will not make an allegation of harassment. This highlights how there is a very real need for companies to look at ways of creating a more supportive culture that endorses the disclosure of any act of unacceptable behaviour.

In the aftermath of the recent sexual harassment scandals, businesses need to review or update their internal harassment and misconduct policies.

To build a culture which assures employees that their concerns will be handled sensitively and treated in confidence, they also need to understand that it is no longer acceptable to simply refer employees to an employee handbook for advice.

Sexual harassment best practice

In order to break the silence, a steadfast approach to eliminating harassment in the workplace needs to be adopted. For businesses looking to combat sexual harassment, Neves has developed an interactive-led process which includes the following guidelines:

  • Ensure employees at all levels are aware of your sexual harassment policies;
  • Develop best practice policies including sections on a Code of Conduct and Codes of Ethics;
  • Focus on face-to-face interaction, using the employee handbook for reference purposes;
  • Enhance your approach to communication, make openness and fairness priorities;
  • Be pragmatic as you open up the lines of communication – encourage informal disclosure by anyone affected;
  • Be impartial and investigate matters thoroughly;
  • Provide equality for all – treating everyone’s concerns with the same level of confidentiality and severity, avoiding escalation where possible;
  • Set up a confidential ‘hotline’ – managed by a respected figure in the business. SMEs may consider using a third party to manage this important resource;
  • Establish a workplace forum that can help employees deal with the issue;
  • Always treat people as individuals; know your staff, communicate with managers;
  • Demonstrate impartiality, fairness and competence when investigating allegations.

In December 2017, Psychology Today ran an article addressing the inefficiencies of existing sexual harassment training programmes, identifying the need to take a different approach that can help to change hostile work environments and reduce the frequency of harassing behaviours.

Highlighting how current approaches minimise companies’ legal liabilities and don’t make much of a difference in reducing sexual harassment, most training is described as "stilted, non-interactive and often endured with a mix of disdain and ridicule."

Through training, people should be informed that a policy of zero tolerance is in place. This involves making everyone aware of the policy, whereby any instances or behaviour that makes their colleagues feel uncomfortable is dealt with properly.

It should also cover disciplinary action relating to those who make false accusations.

As well as focusing on these important measures as part of the employee induction process, they should also be included in the employee handbook.

The most important thing to remember is to ensure the topic is continuously reviewed, and where appropriate, in an open format.

Employees who experience sexual harassment should feel reassured that their employer will perform a key role in resolving the situation. However, despite the major focus which movements such as the #MeToo campaign have given, many victims still remain silent.

Employers must start taking their responsibilities in protecting their employees more seriously and this starts with creating a shift at a cultural level, which is achievable via some easy and very practical steps. 


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