The next steps towards ending sexual harassment at work

The world has changed when it comes to awareness of the issue. But, Arran Heal asks, has the workplace?

New research into the experiences of female surgeons, the instances of sexual harassment, assault and even rape, has again highlighted the dangers of ‘closed’ workplace cultures: the hierarchies of power and status; physically-confined work spaces; an atmosphere of pressure, stress and secrecy. Noone dares to be the whistleblower when the stakes are so high.

The recent snapshot survey from People Management suggests a mixed picture of new action but ongoing problems.

More attention to the issue has certainly meant more willingness to speak up and in turn, employers are seen to be taking reports of harassment more seriously. They are taking a zero tolerance stance and have introduced more training and channels for reporting problems.

In other words, everyone agrees it’s wrong in principle and it’s easier to take a stand – but the grey, complex areas around people’s relationships (different ideas of what constitutes banter, what reasonable behaviour looks like) mean that concerns around sexual harassment aren’t going away.

What really matters is what happens next. The #MeToo movement played an essential role in waking up organisations to the problem and the need for change.

But more important is the evolution of workplace culture for the next generations of employees – particularly now, with the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill and the duty on employers to actively prevent harassment.

Not more of the ‘why’ make changes, but how to do it — without stripping out the fundamental ability for people to be human, to be themselves (including the possibility they could be attracted to colleagues).

Maybe one of the most telling figures from the survey was around the measures being put in place to address the issues. There’s clearly a strong degree of belief in formal processes. Seven in 10 now believe that a sexual harassment claim would be investigated seriously and effectively. 

But what are the implications for employers of the zero tolerance approach, of taking a hard line with cases of grievances with any stain of sexual harassment on them?

Importance of relationships

The crux of the issue is about better relationships, not putting up more barriers and restrictions around them. Employees at all levels need to have the skills to be self-aware and have the awkward, sensitive conversations that are needed to avoid, dispel or remedy difficult situations.

Across sectors and types of employment, workplace relationships have been drastically altered over the past 20 years, firstly through the increasing dependence on IT and digital communications, then by the Covid period and the acceptance of hybrid working methods, more flexible arrangements and use of video calls for meetings, even social gatherings, over face-to-face contact.

Relationships have been stretched over distances, thinned out, dispersed, moved away from the traditional shared spaces and opportunities for everyday conversations. Putting more stress on de-personalising relationships isn’t going to improve cultures, employee experience or engagement.

One of the main reasons we’re in this sorry situation around workplace sexual harassment is this lack of people skills, an ability to deal with what might begin as a minor irritation or grievance in an informal way.

Junior staff might worry about how to be clear about their feelings; managers might not have the self-awareness, empathy or situational awareness to see where they are overstepping boundaries; directors don’t want to get involved with what could, after all, just be private, personal affairs.

Everyone’s avoiding embarrassment and being caught up in the pain of disciplinary processes and associated workplace scandal.

Anonymous reporting and grown up conversations

With this in mind, there is also clearly the need for the option of anonymous reporting. Just in itself, making a claim against another member of staff can feel difficult, whether it’s made anonymously or not.

Which is why the anonymised reporting route needs to be an established one — promoted and supported from the top of the organisation as a valid and important method of freeing workplaces from harassment and other damaging behaviours.

Technology, like the #NotMe platform, provides a more straightforward solution for organisational cultures where structures of power and command-and-control management styles make any kind of speaking up feel like a risk.

What will put an end to workplace environments that allow sexual harassment to happen, to go unreported and lead to toxic relations, is simple enough: openness and grown-up conversations.

At the same time, more skills and maturity in dealing with problems also means there can be a balance. People can be people, there can be social conversations and jokes and different kinds of attachments - without uncomfortable situations and most importantly, without the misuse of power, the exploitation by one position or type of personality over another.

Arran Heal is the managing director of CMP

You can read the feature in full here and see HR professionals' experiences and thoughts on addressing sexual harassment at work here.