Tackling workplace sexual harassment

With recent research finding half of victims choose not to report sexually inappropriate behaviour at work, Anna Loutfi provides guidance for employers

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Ever since #MeToo laid bare the shocking truth about workplace sexual harassment, behaviour has changed for the better – or so we’d like to believe. The widely held assumption is that most of us know the difference between what is and isn’t acceptable and stay on the right side of the line and the law. 

But research by The Barrister Group tells a different story. Almost a third of UK workers in a range of sectors from healthcare to HR have experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour. Equally shocking is that only half made a formal complaint. 

One would think that a problem still so obviously prevalent would be high on the government’s agenda, but plans to toughen up sexual harassment laws were actually watered down recently after Conservative peers raised concerns about free speech.

Employers still have a duty of care towards employees, however and, as set out in the Equality Act 2010, employees have a right to feel safe and free from harassment at work. Businesses can also be found vicariously liable for harassment that takes place ‘in the course of employment’ so they should take steps to protect themselves.

Common complaints

The study by Censuswide spoke to 2,019 workers and found that 29 per cent had been sexually harassed by a colleague, with groping, stroking and sexual comments or messages among the most common complaints. 

The perpetrator in the majority of cases was someone in a more senior position. But despite many saying they felt violated, intimidated and scared, half (48 per cent) of victims chose not to report the harassment for fear they would be treated negatively as a result. Sadly, this fear was borne out by the experiences of those who did speak up and were, in some instances, made to feel isolated, awkward and accused of overreacting – 12 per cent said they felt forced to find another job.  

More than a third of those surveyed believed their bosses would turn a blind eye rather than tackle sexual harassment, with one in four describing the culture as sexist or misogynistic. 

Further, while most respondents claimed they knew what constituted inappropriate behaviour, around a third thought touching a colleague’s breasts or bum or making sexual comments was OK. 

Best policy 

Three in five (60 per cent) of those surveyed said their workplace had a sexual harassment policy, but that leaves a whopping 40 per cent that did not. This is surprising, particularly in the current climate when, thanks to a raft of recent high-profile scandals, public awareness of the problem is high. 

If your company has an employee handbook, it should be included in that but, if not, and you don’t have a policy, you should think seriously about putting one in place. A tribunal judge is unlikely to look favourably on an employer that just didn’t see the need. 

Policies such as these are often drafted by HR and, as a minimum, should outline how employees are expected to behave in the workplace. Harassment is defined in the Equality Act as anything that violates a person’s dignity or creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Policies should also clearly detail the process for making a complaint and for how that complaint will be investigated, as well as the support available for those affected. 

The findings of the research also raise concerns about the culture of some workplaces and only when that changes will meaningful progress be made. Forward-thinking employers will understand the value of fostering an open, transparent and respectful culture where employees not only feel they will be supported should harassment occur, but where they can see that proactive measures are in place to prevent it from happening in the first place.   

Anna Loutfi is an equality, employment and human rights barrister at The Barrister Group