HR · 10 May 2018

ACT NOW: How to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace

Half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work.

It can often be difficult for small businesses to tackle sexual harassment cases, but with the proliferation of movements like #MeToo and #IBelieveHer more victims are coming forward.

The TUC surveyed 1,500 women and found that 52 per cent had been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work. However, despite the gracious efforts of the movements 80 per cent of victims still, never report the misconduct.

Because of this, businesses must learn how to support victims after sexual harassment but more importantly prevent sexual harassment happening.

A BBC survey carried out in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein case found that half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work. 63 per cent of those women and 79 per cent of the men did not report it.

Due to the proliferation of media coverage and women across the globe coming forward and reporting sexual harassment this sparked courage in 21-year-old Hannah, who worked as a sales and customer services advisor at a UK engineer parts supplier company.

The TUC surveyed 1,500 women and found that:
• 52 per cent had been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work, varying from inappropriate jokes to groping.
• Shockingly almost 20 per cent cited their manager or someone in a position of authority as being the perpetrator.
• 80 per cent of those who had been harassed never reported it.

Hannah decided to come forward in December 2017 to report her experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. For over the duration of a year, Hannah was submitted to inappropriate behaviours propelled towards her from two middle-aged male members of staff.

Although Hannah worked at a large company, she was situated in a smaller office working in the same space with only these two colleagues. Hannah told Business Advice: “I had my waist and hips grabbed and touched from behind on multiple occasions. I complained about it but it still happened.

“They watched really weird porn in front of me when they knew I didn’t like it. They would try and get me to talk about oral sex and stuff like that with them.”

Each day Hannah went to work, she dreaded interacting with her colleagues who made her feel “smothered and uncomfortable.”

Hannah reported the instances multiple times throughout her time at the company, but the harassment never stopped. She was simply told that if she was such a feminist then there would not be a problem.

“They would even talk about rape and imply that it didn’t exist and that women always wanted it – and were only jumping on the bandwagon when it came to reporting it,” added Hannah.

Victims are coming together on a global scale are rallying in order to raise awareness and support.

Eventually, Hannah took a more serious approach when communicating with the business’ HR but unfortunately this resulted in her losing her job. Despite emails with evidence of what happened to her being covered up by the accused that IT found, HR still didn’t grant it enough evidence to do anything about it. “Nothing happened to them and I was told in a letter that I have to go back to work with them or its unauthorized absence which will result in dismissal, so I had no choice but to quit my job.”

As an employer, sexual harassment can be difficult to deal with, particularly when the perpetrator is a senior member of staff or, worse, the business owner or CEO. However, to turn a blind eye is to be complicit in the behaviour, not to mention falling foul of employment law.

Hannah told us that if she felt better supported at this time the circumstances would have been less difficult for here, she said: “If anyone had shown me that my safety was a priority and enforced actions to prove that it was then I think that would have made the whole grievance procedure more bearable.”

It can sometimes be much more difficult for small businesses to tackle sexual harassment than it would be for a large corporation. Workspaces are smaller, with fewer employees, relationships may be closer than they might be in a larger workplace, which can create a culture with people prone to overstepping boundaries or simply acting inappropriately.

To prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, Emma O’Leary, an employment law consultant for the ELAS Group explained how business owners can help.

O’Leary said: “An employer is vicariously liable for the actions of its employees, so it will be your responsibility as an employer if one of your employees is found to have committed unlawful sexual harassment and you did not take all reasonable steps to prevent it.”

To support employers with their responsibilities, O’Leary outlined seven strategies for tackling sexual harassment in the workplace.

7 ways micro businesses can tackle sexual harassment:

  1. Educate staff and management as to what constitutes harassment, what the boundaries are and what behaviours will and won’t be tolerated.
  2. Provide workplace training on the topic as well as on equality and diversity, which go hand in hand.
  3. Ensure that you have clear and rigorous policies in place which not only act as a deterrent for any potential harassment, but also ensure that the victim knows they can, and should, report any conduct and will be protected should they do so. As much as sexual harassment of any kind is wrong, so is retaliation against an employee who reports that they have been/are being harassed.
  4. Watch out for banter – yes we all like a laugh to ease the stress of work but it can go horribly wrong when boundaries are crossed and seemingly harmless jokes turn sinister. Keep an eye on what kind of conversations are taking place to ensure you protect staff who might be subject to bullying or harassment.
  5. Train managers not only to spot the signs of harassment but to deal with it sensitively. Equip them with the tools they need to carry out the right investigatory process and procedure should they be tasked with dealing with a complaint.
  6. Review your disciplinary process to ensure that it’s suitable to tackle the issue should misconduct be found to have occurred.
  7. Support the victim – if harassment is found to have occurred, it could have a serious effect on their health and wellbeing. Do you offer access to a counselling service etc?

“While small businesses may find it more difficult from a practical perspective in terms of resources and having staff that can manage sexual harassment complaints it is still possible, and they should comply with their obligations to protect employees from harassment,” O’Leary added.
__________________________________________________________________________________
Weinstein

Employers must clearly define harassment rules in light of Harvey Weinstein allegations.

Employers must clearly define harassment rules in light of Harvey Weinstein allegations

__________________________________________________________________________________

The battle of sexual harassment still appears to be far from won. However, with more and more victims coming forward the will inevitably cause a drastic change throughout all workplaces.

Unfortunately, the perpetrators in Hannah’s case still work at the supplier firm and she is still left feeling unresolved and cheated. In February this year, the grievance was declared as not being upheld due to insufficient evidence and in March her case appeal had been declined, so instead, she is currently preparing evidence for a court case where she will be representing herself.

“I am taking this to court because something awful happened to me and because I spoke up and reported it, I somehow ended up losing my job, they all still work there and nothing at all has happened to them. They think this is funny.

“Women in engineering industries are so vulnerable, despite the help of genuine HR departments. We’re not protected enough, something really has to change.”

The highest employment tribunal award for sexual harassment in the workplace happened back in 2011 when a telesales worker was sexually harassed by her manager and won a £290,000 payout from British Telecom.

Petrina Taylor, 36, complained about her ordeal at the hands of ‘dangerous’ sex pest boss Craig Alcock – but BT’s response was ‘woeful’, a tribunal ruled. The firm had multiple women sue them on the grounds of sexual harassment, but the firm also settled several cases outside of court.

If you are concerned about any of the issues raised then contact ACAS on 0300 123 1150 or Citizens Advice on 03444 111 444

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest from Business Advice.


 
TAGS:

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Carly Hacon is a reporter for Business Advice. She has a BA in journalism from Kingston University, and has previously worked as a features editor for a local newspaper.

Q&A

If you’ve found the article above useful, but have a more detailed and bespoke question, then please feel free to submit a query to our expert. We at Business Advice will get in contact with them on your behalf and arrange for a personalised response. These questions and answers will then be collated on the site for any other readers who have similar queries.

Ask a question

From the top