As workplace sexual harassment continues to hit the headlines, how can HR help to end it?

More than five years after #MeToo and amid a new wave of allegations at leading, global organisations, it seems we still have not solved the structural causes of sexual harassment in the workplace. Here’s how HR can act

Credit: Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press/Alamy Stock Photo

Early on in her career in HR, Megan was approached with an allegation of sexual harassment. “The perpetrator was in a relationship with my boss at the time, and it was extremely uncomfortable,” she remembers. 

“It didn’t get upheld, but later on he made a joke about me ‘getting him off’ and I’ve always wondered whether I did enough to bring the allegations to light.” Megan – who has since left that organisation – believes that times and standards have changed since she was in this situation, and that had the person approached her today, the incident would not have been brushed off as easily. 

But Megan may be in the minority among her HR colleagues if People Management’s reader survey is anything to go by. Around 50 per cent of the 314 people professionals responding said there was no difference or they were seeing a greater level of sexual harassment in their organisation over the past five years, and while it is seemingly positive that nearly 35 per cent felt there was less sexual harassment in workplaces generally, 32 per cent had seen no difference since the #MeToo hashtag went viral six years ago.

The latest phase of the #MeToo movement – first motioned by American activist Tarana Burke in 2006 – was prompted by actress Alyssa Milano, who encouraged her followers to share their stories of situations where they’d felt vulnerable or had experienced sexual harassment or assault in the entertainment industry. The revitalised movement prompted thousands of (mostly) women to voice their concerns and experiences and, in turn, nudged workplaces in all industries to ensure they had the appropriate channels in place for employees to report sexual harassment without fear of it negatively impacting their career. A fresh bout of the #MeToo movement has most recently rocked Taiwan, after the release of political drama series Wave Makers on Netflix jolted a wave of sexual harassment allegations that have led to the resignation of several ruling party officials and even legislative changes.

In theory, as Megan says, a report of sexual harassment is now less likely to be brushed under the carpet. But looking at the torrent of recent scandals, and People Management’s snapshot survey suggesting people have been left wanting for radical change, has HR learned anything about how to deal with this? 

Where are we now? 

Sexual harassment headlines have felt relentless in 2023 – from multiple allegations at the crisis-ridden CBI to decades of alleged sexual misconduct at Odey Asset Management, and most recently reports from more than 100 staff at McDonald’s of sexual assault, harassment and bullying. It feels as though organisations are witnessing more incidences of sexual harassment or misconduct, or at the very least they are being reported more. “I think the pandemic touched a nerve and more people are calling this out,” says Susan Hetrick, a corporate reputation specialist and author of Toxic Organisational Cultures and Leadership: How to Build and Sustain a Healthy Workplace. “Since the financial crisis of 2008-09, the economy has been working around short-term gains and there are more pressures on performance, which you could argue has led to more toxic behaviour.”

Research in the MIT Sloan Management Review earlier this year analysed 600,000 reviews on Glassdoor, finding that, between 2016 and 2021, women were 35 per cent more likely to negatively mention toxic culture than men, and in 2021 were 41 per cent more likely to have suffered negative effects as a result. But this isn’t to say men aren’t impacted. Research from the UK government in 2020 found that 60 per cent of men would experience sexual harassment in their lifetime. “We’re more open about this now so we could describe that as progress,” says Hetrick. Indeed, People Management’s survey shows HR professionals are pretty confident – 69 per cent of the respondents said if a claim of sexual harassment was brought in their organisation today, it would be investigated seriously and effectively. “But there are still those cases of people who leave, who think [reporting] is not worth risking their health or family,” adds Hetrick, who worries that HR has been more focused on building credibility. “HR’s role here has to be about organisational justice, rather than being concerned about having a seat at the table.” 

Phoebe Mather, senior legal adviser at Protect, a charity that supports whistleblowers, also believes there has not been enough positive movement in dealing with sexual harassment issues. “Understanding of whistleblowing is growing since #MeToo, but it’s not where it should be,” she says. Since 2017, there has been a 117 per cent increase in the average number of calls to Protect per year relating to sexual harassment, and the proportion of calls it receives on its advice line has risen from 0.35 per cent in 2017 to 1.11 per cent in 2023 so far. “One of the key things is that a ripple effect can happen if someone comes forward. If they have a bad experience of reporting and others hear about that, they might question whether they come forward about their own experience. This becomes a major issue for organisations because this culture builds,” Mather adds. 

What can we do about culture? 

While no organisation is immune to experiencing incidences of sexual harassment, some sectors have higher risk factors than others because of historical cultures, hierarchical structures or even how they socialise. Bronwen Biddle, who works for the Welsh Ambulance Service, says its workforce is unusual because it has one foot in the NHS and the other in uniformed services. “Our culture is representative of the latter; we have a strong sense of identity and quite patriarchal values, as well as a lack of diversity, which can be a risk factor,” she explains. 

“There’s an enormous sense of family, but that means we also have attachments to rites and rituals. We’re a high-risk workforce in terms of mental health and we do a very difficult job where we use humour to cope sometimes.” That humour can turn into banter, which can cross a line. And when dealing with serious incidents, teams have to resort to a ‘command and control’ leadership style to respond quickly and save lives, which can lead to power imbalances in their culture. “Some behaviours become normalised; in every public service there will be robust policies in place, but more education is needed to bring more clarity as to what misogyny is, or what experiences cross the line,” says Biddle. 

Biddle has set up a group called Ambulance Voices, where victims of sexual harassment in the service can share their experiences. She has done this in collaboration with the creators of Surviving in Scrubs, a website that aims to amplify the stories of healthcare workers. While difficult, sharing experiences can influence policy changes around reporting sexual harassment at a national level, she argues, as well as inform individual employers about their own risk factors. “If we can see what makes each sector unique, we can support senior leaders through activities such as reverse mentoring,” she adds. Too often, HR manages the “wrong risks”, according to Biddle, focusing on whether something contravened a code of conduct or if the business could end up in a tribunal, rather than a more victim-centred approach. 

Taking the systemic approach 

How can HR policies and processes support this method? The key is to start with what the organisation stands for and build the response from there, argues Matt Dean, co-founder of workplace culture consultancy Byrne Dean. “There’s often too much concern about being seen to do the right thing rather than actually doing the right thing. Is your response because you are people focused, or because you are worried?” he says. Policies around dealing with harassment can cover the appropriate channels to use and the legal and reputational risks, but if line managers don’t live up to the values the organisation is supposed to stand for, or an employee feels they won’t be heard, they are worthless. Dean adds: “Training needs to focus on how you build this sort of relationship, that a big part of a leader’s job is listening. It should demonstrate which behaviours are acceptable and which are not. This is not about helplines.” 

David Liddle, CEO of mediation company TCM Group, actively advises against “adversarial” grievance, bullying and harassment policies that he argues have more of a traumatic impact on victims than the event itself. “Sexual harassment often begins with other issues that aren’t being addressed at source, such as managers turning a blind eye to inappropriate language or banter. Resolving these issues at an earlier stage can help to realign behaviour back to the organisation’s values,” he says. On occasion, HR processes and policies can end up being “incubators of toxicity” that undermine cultural change. “This isn’t the fault of the HR team itself, because they’re immersed in case management and can’t get their head above the parapet to drive that systemic learning.” Liddle advocates creating a resolution team that reviews how incidents are handled and identifies opportunities for learning. “If they put themselves into a feedback loop gathering data from the organisation as it experiences tension and challenges, they can use this to drive change,” he adds.

Setting the tone from the top 

As so many stories in recent months have shown, it’s how the people at the top of the organisation respond to allegations that influence how the workforce feels now and, even more importantly, in the future. “Strengthening the status quo and doing more of what didn’t work won’t work,” says Liddle. “Take data to the executive team and use it to inform strategy. Create compassion at scale by asking every manager and leader to bring empathy into their relationships – this can be the catalyst for change.” If leaders fail to take a proactive approach to building more trust into their culture, they could well find they’re dealing with it in the glare of publicity. “If you choose not to do this you get the culture you deserve,” he concludes. “We are not passive recipients of culture, so start acting now.”  

“Are we as HR professionals trained for this? No”

An HR director of a financial services firm shares his experience of handling a sexual harassment claim at work:

“Around four years ago, our company held a Christmas party at a venue with security and a private area. I didn’t attend, but normally I would be the first to know if anything untoward happened. The next morning at work, a girl came to my office with her female manager, in tears. She told me she’d been assaulted at the event by someone who worked with us, that she’d been sitting in a dark corner and he’d started groping her. 

“As a man, I felt she might be more comfortable if I asked a female colleague to sit with us and take notes. My first question was whether she’d reported this to the police. From an HR perspective, we could treat this as a grievance, something that went against workplace rules on conduct, just as we would if it had happened in the office. At this point, all we knew was this was an accusation. 

“I then asked to speak to the colleague in question and his own manager at an informal meeting. The colleague’s immediate response was ‘I’ve done something bad’, although he could not remember precise details. I explained that we could suspend him pending an investigation and, if that matched the female employee’s version of events, he would be dismissed immediately because of the severity of the charge. He resigned the same day and we accepted his resignation immediately. We spoke to our employment lawyer, whose main advice was to ensure we took copious notes on everything. 

“A few weeks later the police turned up and we supplied statements and details, something that came to court more than three years later, only to be dropped on the day. We’d given the employee time off as she found being at work upsetting. We paid for external counselling, going above and beyond our policies. Rumours were flying after the other employee’s resignation and it wasn’t comfortable for her, and she too resigned soon after her return. 

“It’s easy to fall back on policy or process for situations like this, but my instinct was to be human above everything else. I was empathetic, but I also had to break it down into what exactly happened and how we could help the person who reported. For future events we sent out an email reminding employees that they are effectively in the workplace and should behave accordingly. I don’t think I’d do anything differently in retrospect. But are we trained for this? No, and neither are managers.”

Is your HR department ‘trauma informed’?

Thomas Beale, a partner specialising in bullying and harassment claims at Bolt Burdon Kemp, offers ways in which HR teams can implement and promote a safe working environment:

1 - Establish clear, comprehensive and informed polices setting out the organisation’s position on sexual harassment, bullying and verbal abuse. These policies should define the prohibited behaviours, emphasise the seriousness of the offences and explain the reporting process. They must be easily accessible to all employees and regularly communicated to raise awareness.

2 - Provide regular training to educate all employees, not just new starters, about sexual harassment. HR professionals should ensure these training programmes are interactive, inclusive and tailored to address the specific challenges of sexual harassment.  

3 - Establish confidential reporting mechanisms. Survivors of harassment or abuse should have various channels available to report incidents, including anonymous options, to encourage open communication. HR should respond promptly to reports, initiate unbiased investigations and take appropriate action against the perpetrators. 

4 - Recognise sexual harassment, bullying and workplace abuse is a form of trauma. According to the Survivor’s Trust: “Trauma from experiences of bullying, sexual abuse, harassment and assault can affect an individual’s mental health, social relationships, work or studies and even their physical health.” Being trauma informed as an HR department can aid a survivor’s recovery.

5 - Support the victim in the way that particular victim needs. This can include connecting them with counselling services, legal advice or employee assistance programmes. HR professionals should actively listen to the survivors, validate their experiences and ensure they are aware of their rights and options. 

6  - Review, review, review. Regular reviews of workplace policies and practices can help identify if more can be done to protect survivors, promote a safe working culture and identify abuse. HR should be willing to take a critical look at its own practices and to learn and improve.