With research showing a rise in the instances of sexual harassment for women and men at work, it’s clear that employers need to be promoting a culture where employees can bring up any concerns of sexual harassment in the knowledge they’ll be listened to and the matter dealt with, promptly.
So, how do employers spot signs of harassment at work and furthermore, what can be done to promote an inclusive, safe working environment.
Awareness within the workforce is key, along with putting measures in place to ensure a safe and inclusive working environment that looks to eliminate sexual harassment behaviour.
Defining sexual harassment
All employees should understand what is meant by sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. The law protects the following people against sexual harassment at work:
employees and workers
contractors and self-employed people hired to personally do the work
To be sexual harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either:
violated someone’s dignity, whether it was intended or not
created a hostile environment for them, whether it was intended or not
Employers must do all they reasonably can to protect staff from sexual harassment and take steps to prevent it happening.
Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace:
unwanted flirting, gesturing or making sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance
asking questions about someone’s sex life
telling sexually offensive jokes
unwanted physical contact
making sexual comments or jokes about someone’s sexual orientation or gender reassignment
displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual images, or other sexual content
Prevention and awareness
The most effective form of prevention is awareness. Employees who are aware of behaviours that can be interpreted as harassment are less likely to behave in that way and more likely to notice any form of sexual harassment in others.
There are occasions where an informal approach will work when dealing with a sexual harassment complaint, but this must only be deployed when both the employer and the employee making the complaint think this is appropriate. For example, this may include a situation where the person making the complaint is content to tell the person they’re complaining about why their unwanted behaviour must stop, and getting an apology and assurance from them that they will not repeat their behaviour. However, this should only happen if the person making the complaint feels comfortable doing this and has the correct support to do so.
Training employees and line managers on harassment and discriminatory treatment
Training line managers in identifying and dealing with sexual harassment is an effective way of raising awareness and can significantly lessen the chances of sexual harassment occurring.
training all employees on recognising and understanding sexual harassment – ideally within their first month, during induction
training someone in HR, or a line manager or another member of staff, to advise people who are considering making a sexual harassment complaint
Putting policies and procedures in place
A well written policy on sexual harassment at work should be made available to all employees and checks in place to ensure they are familiar with it. The policy should include clear reporting procedures for employees to follow, with the emphasis on a safe environment where concerns of sexual harassment can be reported, without fear of recrimination.
It’s important that all internal policies match up and you should check all relevant policies, including:
data protection (GDPR)
For example, your internal social media policy should also make it clear there is zero tolerance of sexual harassment at work, including on personal devices.
A formal procedure will be specifically for dealing with sexual harassment complaints, used either:
when one of the informal options for dealing with a complaint does not work
when a formal complaint is raised from the start
Having clear harassment reporting procedures
All employees should feel comfortable reporting any behaviour that makes them, or other employees feel uncomfortable. Employees should be encouraged to report anyone behaving inappropriately at work.
The formal procedure should allow:
both the person who made the complaint and the person they’re complaining about to be accompanied by a trade union representative or a colleague throughout the procedure, if they make a reasonable request
both the person who made the complaint and the person they’re complaining about to ask for advice from someone at work who’s specially trained to deal with sexual harassment complaints
a right of appeal against a decision after the complaint has been investigated and all the evidence has been heard at a hearing
The formal procedure should also be clear on the process for when disciplinary action might be needed. Either:
the formal procedure includes its own disciplinary process
you use your overall staff disciplinary procedure
Incorporate employee well-being into performance reviews and 1-2-1s
Performance reviews and 1-2-1s are a good opportunity to give employees a voice to report anything that has made them feel uncomfortable and line managers should be trained and open to discussions on the subject of sexual harassment, during meetings with their team.
Dealing promptly with allegations and concerns of sexual harassment
Any instance where an employee raises a concern of sexual harassment should be taken seriously and investigated as soon as possible. Clear internal procedures around sexual harassment at work will allow for employee concerns to be raised promptly and will provide clear guidelines for HR or line managers, so that concerns raised are dealt with in a timely manner, sensitively and correctly.
Have HR or a dedicated person in place to investigate allegations
In a small or SME business, HR will often be responsible for dealing with any concerns of sexual harassment. If in-house HR is not available, an HR Consultant can provide support and guidance for investigation proceedings relating to claims or concerns of sexual harassment.
Creating a culture of zero tolerance
As an employer, you should make these things clear to everyone who works for you:
sexual harassment is against the law
what sexual harassment is and what behaviours are unacceptable at work
you will never cover up or ignore a sexual harassment complaint
you will not tolerate misuse of power in workplace relationships, for example through seniority or influence
how you will handle a sexual harassment complaint
that staff are encouraged to report sexual harassment early
if someone who works for you carries out sexual harassment, it may lead to them losing their job
an employee who makes a complaint that’s not upheld will not face any disciplinary action, as long as their complaint was not malicious
These are other steps employers can take to help create a zero- tolerance culture. For example:
putting a system in place where staff can report sexual harassment complaints online or by phone, including anonymously
carrying out anonymous surveys so staff can say if they’ve experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, if they reported it or not and why
including in managers’ performance objectives that they should report sexual harassment if they see it, or deal with it if they’re trained to
keeping a record of sexual harassment complaints so any patterns of unwanted behaviour are logged
Improving equality, diversity and inclusion
Sexual harassment is less likely to happen in a workplace that encourages and promotes equality, diversity and inclusion.
By making sure your workplace is inclusive and by having a workplace policy in place on Equality Diversity and Inclusion (or Equal Opportunities Policy), you will help your employees to know:
the business supports and treats everyone fairly
what kind of behaviour is expected of them
about discrimination and the law, and what is not acceptable
where to find the procedures for resolving any problems
Your policy could also point employees to any extra activities or services offered, such as:
employee assistance groups or programmes
For more information on how we can provide you with HR support on any of the HR topics listed here, contact us on 07762 629448, or click here.
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