Sexual harassment at work is a topic that has been talked about a lot in recent years since the #MeToo movement sparked by the now convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein.
In this article, authored by Dr Anna Loutfi, equality, employment and human rights barrister with The Barrister Group, we shine a light on the toxic behaviour faced by so many. #MeToo, and other high-profile scandals that have unfolded since, may have pushed the dial when it comes to raising awareness, but how much has really changed?
Recent research by The Barrister Group found that almost a third of UK workers had been sexually harassed by a colleague, and it was not just an issue for women. An almost equal number of men reported being on the receiving end of groping, stroking, comments or messages of a sexual nature and other unwanted attention.
In almost three-quarters of cases, the perpetrator was also someone in a more senior role who often bought their victims’ silence by claiming they wouldn’t be believed, or that their own career would suffer as a result.
As an employment barrister, I tend to see only the most serious side of sexual harassment, those incidents which meet the threshold for litigation, but that doesn’t take away from all the rest. The fact that it is still so prevalent is shocking.
All of us have the right, by law, to feel safe and free from harassment in the workplace and business owners should ensure they have a clear and comprehensive policy in place to fulfil their duty of care and ensure that happens.
What the research found
The study by Censuswide spoke to 2,019 UK adults working in a wide range of sectors from retail, catering and leisure to healthcare, HR, education and finance.
It found 29% had experienced inappropriate sexual behaviour from a colleague at work, but only half had reported it to HR or a senior manager.
Victims described feeling violated, intimidated, ashamed, degraded and scared, but 48% chose not to report it for fear they would be seen as the problem rather than the perpetrator. Sadly, many of those who did said they were accused of overreacting, left feeling isolated, and in 12% of cases felt they were left with no other option but to find a different job.
One of the most shocking aspects of this study for me was the sheer volume of people who did not appear to know what constituted sexual harassment. Astonishingly, a third didn’t think there was anything wrong with touching someone’s breasts, slapping their bum or making sexual comments about their appearance when it is plainly unacceptable.
Little wonder then that 34% of workers also believed their bosses were complicit and happy to look the other way, with a quarter describing their workplace culture as sexist or misogynistic.
While many said their employer had a policy in place to deal with sexual harassment, 39% did not.
Finding the right policy
The 2010 Equality Act defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which violates a person’s dignity or creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Employers can also be found vicariously liable if sexual harassment took place “in the course of employment” so it is wise that business owners take all possible steps to protect themselves as well as their employees, which include a sexual harassment policy.
If you have ever engaged a lawyer to draw up an employee handbook for your business, then you should find your sexual harassment policy in there. Whether it is up to date is a different question – best practice is to review all policies on at least an annual basis, but this doesn’t always happen.
Many smaller companies may not need a handbook but, particularly in the current climate, if they haven’t already got a sexual harassment policy then I would strongly advise them to put one in place.
You don’t necessarily need a lawyer; a HR professional should be able to draw up a policy and there are a range of online resources available such as ACAS to assist.
As a minimum, your policy should unambiguously outline how employees are expected to behave at work and detail the options available for reporting a complaint of sexual harassment, alongside the formal procedure for handling such complaints.
Creating the right culture at work will go a long way to safeguarding against sexual harassment.
Employers should make clear their stance and communicate it to employees on a regular basis so that everyone is aware of and understands their obligations. This should sit alongside regular training in how to identify and deal with sexual harassment should it occur, whether directed at the individual themselves or a colleague.
Promoting a culture of openness, transparency and respect will ensure people feel comfortable in calling out bad behaviour at work and confident if they raise a complaint that they will be supported, and the necessary action taken.