Businesses must train staff to intervene in sexual harassment, say experts

Survey finds just a third of respondents would be ‘very likely’ to report witnessing an incident

Staff-wide training on sexual harassment is vital if organisations hope to reduce negative workplace cultures, a report has found, with experts calling on employers to tackle behavioural change and the “bystander effect”.

A year after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein gave the #MeToo movement new impetus, there is still a “high level” of tolerance for harassment in the workplace.

A survey of more than 2,000 British adults, published by Acas and YouGov, found 60 per cent of respondents believed better training around sexual harassment for all members of staff would be the most effective step for reducing negative workplace cultures. 

Only six in 10 (58 per cent) respondents felt their employer was doing enough to tackle sexual harassment in their workplace.

And the survey also suggested people remained willing to overlook damaging behaviours. Just a third (36 per cent) would be “very likely” to report incidents of sexual harassment they witnessed at work, rising to 38 per cent if it was an incident they personally experienced. 

“We have a high level of tolerance for the intolerable, and that is why people think progress is being made – that is not my experience and not what I hear anecdotally,” Dorothy Dalton, CEO of training organisation 3Plus International LTD, which tackles gender issues in organisations, told People Management

“Sexism is so deeply embedded in our cultures that many don’t even recognise it for what it is, so there is a pressing need for businesses to focus on behavioural change rather than only compliance and reporting. Training should foster self-advocacy training for targets, and bystander intervention training for witnesses.” 

Almost a fifth (18 per cent) of survey respondents said they would be ‘unlikely’ to report an incident of harassment if they experienced one, reflecting wider anxieties around reporting harassment. 

Research published by the EHRC in March this year found approximately half of respondents had not reported instances of harassment to anyone at work due to fear of victimisation, while a September survey from the Young Women’s Trust found a quarter of young women would be reluctant to report for fear of losing their jobs. 

Julie Dennis, head of diversity at Acas, said this week’s survey highlighted progress was still needed from organisations to deliver cultural change in UK workplaces. “Our study reveals many workers feel their employers are doing enough, but then there’s a big question around why so few of them are likely to report serious incidents to their line manager,” she said. 

“Businesses need to ensure that workplace environments are safe and welcoming places so that any type of sexual harassment behaviour never sees the light of day. But if it does happen, staff should feel confident to report this type of abuse.”

In July, the Women and Equalities Committee called for the introduction of a duty on employers to guard against sexual harassment supported by a statutory code of practice, warning there was currently “little incentive” for employers to take robust action.  

“Organisations need to define sexual harassment very clearly; the best way to do this, particularly if you are running an inclusive management style, is to get input from your people and create an inclusive leadership charter that clearly outlines unacceptable behaviours,” Dalton said. 

“Psychological security and safety is one of the primary things people look for in a workplace, making this not just a personal issue but a business issue. Organisations are still failing to acknowledge this.”