Recent research into workplace sexual harassment serves as a sharp reminder that there is still much to be done by employers when it comes to keeping their staff safe.
A study by The Barrister Group found that just under a third of UK workers had experienced some form of sexually inappropriate behaviour from colleagues. Groping, stroking and sexual comments or messages were among the most common complaints.
Three-quarters of victims said the perpetrator was someone in a more senior position, and often they were told they wouldn’t be believed, or that their own career would suffer if they spoke out.
Worryingly, only just over half reported what had happened to them. Forty-eight percent stayed silent for fear they would be treated negatively and many who did complain said they were.
Sadly, their experiences are nothing new, but employers have a legal duty of care towards their employees and a shared responsibility to stand up to and help stamp out this toxic behaviour. Businesses should be proactive in making sure that happens if they want to keep themselves out of court.
Under the 2010 Equality Act, everyone has the right to feel safe and free from harassment, which is defined as anything that “violates your dignity, or creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”
Employers can also be held vicariously liable for harassment committed by their staff, although plans to toughen up sexual harassment laws were watered down recently after Conservative peers raised concerns.
The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act originally sought to introduce a mandatory duty on employers to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment of workers in the course of their employment, but this was considered too onerous and has been amended to “take reasonable steps.” It also proposed to make employers liable for the harassment of workers by third parties, but this has been dropped altogether on the grounds that it would be burdensome for employers, hard to discharge and could jeopardise free speech.
The bill is in the final stages of its passage through parliament and likely to receive royal assent soon, although it will not come into force until a year after the law is passed.
This does not mean that businesses can afford to ignore the issue, however. Employers who want to protect their staff from harassment should be taking all reasonable, preventative steps already, something they will be required to evidence should they ever find themselves facing legal action.
The first port of call for employers is to have a robust sexual harassment policy, which outlines clearly and comprehensively what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour is the workplace. It should also detail the process for making a complaint – to their line manager, a more senior manager, HR or trade union representative, for example – and the process by which that complaint will be investigated.
If a business has an employee handbook then this policy is likely to be included in there, but if not a HR or legal professional should be able to help draw one up. Such policies should really be reviewed on at least an annual basis, although I suspect this is rarely the case.
Employers should make sure that all their policies align. For example, a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment which includes the sending of unwanted messages should also be included in any social media policy.
Communication is crucial – it’s no good having a policy if no one knows it exists – and colleagues should know not only what the policy contains but what it means. Training should be repeated at regular intervals and with any new members of staff.
A policy should be a must for businesses, particularly in the current climate, but creating the right culture is just as important and perhaps even more effective in preventing problems before they occur.
Business owners should lead by example, fostering a positive working environment that promotes openness, transparency, honesty and respect among colleagues at all levels.
Employees should feel empowered to report any behaviour that makes them feel, in the words of research respondents, violated, intimidated, degraded, ashamed or scared.
They should also feel confident that they will be supported, their concerns will be dealt with appropriately and the necessary action taken.
The Barrister Group study is only a representative sample of course, but the 2,000-plus people surveyed across a range of sectors paint a telling snapshot of the unacceptable behaviour that many workers are still having to face. Worryingly, while most claimed they knew what constituted sexual harassment, around a third thought touching someone’s breasts or bum or making sexual comments about their appearance was okay.
More than one in 10 of those who had experienced and reported sexual harassment said their treatment in the aftermath was so bad that they had felt forced to leave their job. A third of workers surveyed also believed their bosses were complicit and happy to look the other way, with a quarter describing their workplace culture as sexist or misogynistic.
Employers may not think that sexual harassment is a problem in their business, but ignorance is not a defence, and my advice would be to take the recommended steps to protect both their staff and themselves.