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Managers are key to reducing sexual harassment

06 September 2016

Managers are key to reducing sexual harassment


Despite the introduction of the Equality Act in 2010, making it an offence to make someone feel distressed, intimidated or offended through behaviour of a sexual nature, sexual harassment at work is still rife.

Almost two-thirds of young women (63 per cent) have experienced harassment, ranging from suggestive jokes or comments about their sex life to inappropriate touching and demands for sexual favours. Nearly a quarter of the 18-24 year olds surveyed by the TUC and Everyday Sexism Project said they’d been subjected to unwanted touching. A worrying 79 per cent of respondents opted not to inform their employer, for fear of damaging relations with colleagues or making the situation even worse. For many, it was just too embarrassing to discuss.

Having worked in HR myself and have seen just how damaging unwanted sexual advances can be for a victim's self-esteem, male or female, it’s simply unacceptable that not only is this still happening but victims don’t have enough trust in their employer to ask them to help.

Just this month, fast-food chain KFC was forced to pay out £30,000, after managers failed to prevent a male co-worker from repeatedly touching and exposing himself to two young sisters.

With initiatives such as the Everyday Sexism Project encouraging more victims to come forward, organisations can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment or allow it to go on unreported. Clarifying what is and isn’t acceptable, and training managers to work alongside HR, on how to hold difficult conversations with alleged perpetrators, is critical to generating the change needed.


Getting victims to come forward

It’s really quite shocking that four out of every five women who’ve experienced sexual harassment at work will say nothing to their employer. In many cases, someone behaving inappropriately at work will be inflicting the same inappropriate behaviour on several people at once. As a result, the group affected might feel able to talk about what’s happening with each other or even try to laugh it off. While this may not be helpful for stopping the problem, it can go a long way to helping the victims deal with what’s happening. 

For those individuals who’ve been singled out for unwanted sexual attention, it can be a very lonely place to be. If they don’t feel like they can talk openly about what’s happening, they can feel like they’ve been placed in an impossible situation, fearful about the next comment or physical advance. Victims may experience heightened anxiety or isolation, leading to depression. If they do muster up the courage to confide in a manager or senior colleague, but their experience is neither addressed nor taken seriously, trust between them and their employer breaks down. Victims may even feel they have no choice but to leave altogether, only for the next unsuspecting victim to take their place.

For this to change, two things have to happen. Firstly, employers need to be explicit about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and ensure this is properly communicated across the organisation and embedded in workplace culture.

Secondly, victims need to know that if they do come forward, nothing rash will be said to the perpetrator, and that their emotional needs must be met first. As soon as someone reports sexual harassment, the first priority for any employer must be to offer personal support, listen fully, assess the emotional impact and reassure them they haven’t done anything wrong themselves, that it’s the perpetrator who has crossed a line.


Providing the right support

Those who attempt to support the victim of sexual harassment must be mindful that they can’t protect the victim all the time. They need to think carefully about what action to take. The worst thing would be for them to confront the perpetrator and risk making the situation worse, should he or she act in a threatening way.

In many cases, it’s worth asking the victim to think about what they themselves can do to improve the situation. If they’ve been suffering in silence, enduring unwanted advances or inappropriate behaviour, because they thought it was too embarrassing or awkward to acknowledge, sometimes just acknowledging the behaviour by saying “Is there a reason you’ve got your hand on my leg?” is enough to shock most harassers into reigning themselves in, especially if they thought their advances were in anyway welcome or going unnoticed. However if a young woman, or man, who is new to the workplace simply doesn’t have the confidence to confront someone in this way then they must be given all the support necessary and reassured that it’s not their fault that this is happening to them.

In many cases, the victim might not feel unable to ask anyone in the organisation to help them, especially if the perpetrator is their own line manager or another senior colleague. The single most important thing the organisation can do is to provide victims with access to someone they can talk to in confidence and who will place their personal wellbeing above all else. Support might take the form of a helpline via an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), or simply the dedicated but expert attention of an HR professional or senior director with pastoral care experience. In many cases, both the victim and the person supporting them will have to be resilient and persistent in their efforts to identify someone who will take the issue seriously and use their authority or influence to get something done.


Training managers to change the culture

Ultimately, it’s about changing workplace culture while training and supporting HR and senior managers to take appropriate action. It’s clearly going to be extremely awkward for them to have to approach a member of their team or a senior director with the allegation. One of the top priorities of any initiative to combat sexual harassment must therefore be to train those people for those difficult conversations.

But it’s not just about supporting managers. Employers must also communicate what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, right across the workforce. Potential perpetrators need to realise that managers have been trained to spot and act on harassment. They’re much less likely to try something on if the workplace culture neither recognises nor respects clear personal boundaries, or if verbal harassment is routinely written off as ‘banter’.

Everyone should understand procedures, and managers and HR must feel empowered to actually do something. In that sense, the right sort of training provides a double whammy: educating employees about unacceptable behaviour, while also giving them the confidence and procedures required to do something about it.

Managers become empowered to say, “If I hear that you’re doing this again, the next step will be for me to raise a formal grievance, or disciplinary procedure against you.” It may be that the policies of a company give no second chance if harassment is occurring.

I once had to deal with a man who was well known within HR for his inappropriate behaviour towards young female colleagues. When I asked why he’d been allowed to carry on, it emerged that the business felt his ability to bring in new business meant everyone was required to turn a blind eye to his ‘inappropriate’ behaviour. In my personal and professional opinion it’s never appropriate for HR to ignore or dismiss sexual harassment allegations because of any benefit they might bring to the business. In this case I worked hard to find someone senior enough to confront his behaviour, while also moving the current victim into another department where they thrived.

Organisations have a legal duty of care to look after their employees and failure to do this will not only generate unwanted absence and unnecessary staff turnover costs, but eventually catch-up with the organisation in other ways. Not least reputation-damaging law suits.


Top Tips

For those organisations that are serious about eradicating sexual harassment:

  • Make sure victims know who they can talk to in confidence about the emotional impact that the harassment is having on them, be this HR, their manager or the EAP
  • Ensure managers are publicly trained on what is and isn’t acceptable, and how to hold difficult conversations with anyone crossing the line
  • Don’t turn a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour because of the alleged perpetrator’s commercial value to the business. Your duty of care trumps all other considerations
  • Create the processes required to take action against anyone who deliberately makes someone feel distressed, intimidated or offended by behaviour of a sexual nature

If you would like to the opportunity to discuss ways of reducing the risk of sexual harassment happening within your organisation, please get in touch via [email protected]