Countering sexual harassment at work

Rather than trying to silence victims, employers should create inclusive workplaces and provide a safe way for employees to voice their concerns, argues Joel Farrow

Every conversation around sexual harassment in the workplace spurs progress in some way. High-profile cases and viral social media campaigns, such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, have brought the issue front and centre in recent years. 

But at this point, awareness is no longer the main issue. With a recent BBC study finding half of British women and a fifth of British men have been sexually harassed at work or their place of study, businesses must quickly assess what actions need to be taken. And the need for improved processes around the reporting of harassment is evident. 

Combating sexual harassment at work should not involve silencing or segregating victims. Instead, it calls for the creation of an inclusive, open workplace that empowers employees to speak out when things aren’t right. Ultimately, this revolves around businesses providing a safe way of voicing concerns around harassment. 

What’s more, the true cost of sexual harassment at work is not always apparent. Aside from the damaging toll it takes on employees’ lives, the costs to employers are also significant. A study by the Institute for New Economic Thinking found a typical Fortune 500 company lost more than $14m a year because of factors such as absenteeism and the increased healthcare expenses associated with sexual harassment.

However, outside of these quantifiable costs, there are a series of unquantifiable, ‘hidden’ costs, including the detrimental impact on an employee’s performance, the toxic effect on workplace culture and the organisation’s ability to retain talent.

So what about these costs that can’t be measured? One core reason for the lack of information on sexual harassment is that it is an under-reported issue. According to a survey by YouGov and the Huffington Post, more than 70 per cent of those who experience sexual harassment do not even report it. This pattern is reflected in the workplace too, with another poll by SHRM finding that 11 per cent of non-management employees had experienced sexual harassment at some point during the year and that 76 per cent of these people had not reported it.

These trends demonstrate that employees still fear retaliation and are unaware of the reporting processes their employers have in place. In fact, the same study found that while 94 per cent of HR professionals believed their organisations had deployed anti-harassment policies, only 22 per cent of non-management employees knew about them.

If you couple this with workplace non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) then the problem becomes even clearer. Many victims feel unable to discuss the crime without feeling they are committing one themselves. While movements such as #MeToo and groups like the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee have done a lot to campaign against the unethical use of these contracts, businesses still need to consider the ethical and legal issues of tactics like NDAs.

Instead of relying on ways to silence victims, organisations should be taking a stand against sexual harassment in the workplace, implementing measures to encourage a culture of transparency. They must ensure employees feel comfortable coming forward and understand there will not be retaliation or harm to them. To achieve this, it is vital that a company’s commitment to dealing with sexual harassment is clearly defined by an official policy that is continually reinforced, not just explained when they first join.

Outside of cultural changes, technological advancements are also making it easier for people to speak out against sexual harassment. With secure, encrypted forms of anonymous reporting tools employees can ask questions and discuss incidences without fear.

The rise of workplace technology has been important for encouraging reporting. But the next stage relies on human actions; for HR to handle conversations about sexual harassment efficiently, and with empathy. Crucially, businesses are tasked with giving their people a voice – and listening closely.

Joel Farrow is MD at Hibob