Calls for more line manager training as 1 in 10 retail staff report inappropriate touching

15 Aug 2019 By Maggie Baska

Experts say figures underline a workplace culture in which bosses are not equipped to deal with harassment

More than one in 10 retail workers has experienced “inappropriate touching of a sexual nature” in their current role from either a colleague or a customer, according to a new survey, which has led to calls for line managers to be given more in-depth training on acceptable workplace behaviour.

In the poll of 1,031 workers, 11 per cent said they had experienced inappropriate touching of a sexual nature while at work. If this was extrapolated across the entire retail workforce, it would suggest 319,000 workers had been affected. 

The poll also found that 36 per cent of those who reported experiencing such behaviour believed their employer could have done more to prevent it happening.

The research comes at a time when employment tribunal claims for discrimination and harassment are rising on the back of the #MeToo movement.

The survey, which was commissioned by law firm Foot Anstey and Survation, called for more training for managers and senior staff to combat the rise of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Patrick Howarth, partner at Foot Anstey, said the figures showed the majority of sexual harassment came from within businesses. “Many managers are promoted on the basis of technical abilities and are not equipped with the leadership skills to deal with harassment – or even to recognise it when they see it,” he said. 

Of those who reported seeing or experiencing inappropriate touching at work, more than half (51 per cent) of retail workers said a colleague had carried out the behaviour, while 27 per cent reported it from a customer. 

Several respondents described racist, sexual or abusive language from both colleagues and customers, with many reporting bullying by managerial or senior staff. One anonymous worker said a colleague “made me sit on his lap” while another said two male colleagues, who were both senior staff members, were verbally and sexually inappropriate.

Almost half (47 per cent) of the staff surveyed reported hearing sexual, racist, homophobic or other highly offensive lanuage in the workplace, while 38 per cent said colleagues were the ones using offensive or discriminatory language. 

A similar percentage (40 per cent) reported offensive or discriminatory language coming from customers. 

Thalis Vlachos, employment law partner at Gunnercooke, told People Management employers needed to act proactively and hold regular training and seminars for managers, providing practical advice on what is and is not appropriate behaviour in the workplace. “There is a certain level of people within businesses, in terms of seniority, who still think people can sit on their lap and they don’t realise how that action or their behaviours impact on other people or the business as a whole,” Vlachos said.

“Everyone knows the extreme behaviours – but it is the grey areas employers need to realise and recognise where they can slip up. Managers need practical, regular training so they can educate their own teams.” 

He added that workplace banter was another “grey area” that could easily cross into discrimination or victimisation. 

The poll revealed that 22 per cent of all retail workers said there were no anonymous HR reporting mechanisms at their workplace where they could raise concerns about inappropriate or offensive behaviours. 

Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, said employers must not underestimate the seriousness of workplace harassment and needed to empower staff to report such behaviours. “By allowing employees to report any unwanted conduct through an anonymous HR service, employers can encourage individuals to come forward who may not otherwise have done so and reassure their workforce that, if situations like this do occur, they will be listened to and have access to ongoing support,” he said.

“Taking this action can be crucial in encouraging the continued loyalty, retention and productivity of the workforce.”

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