How to help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?
Sexual harassment is an endemic problem in our society. In the past decade, the global "#MeToo" movement has helped to raise awareness of its prevalence, helping it to become a high-profile issue.
Sexual harassment can happen virtually anywhere, and it often happens at work. We need to see real, substantive action to tackle it, and we have developed a suite of resources for employers to help them create the change. They are designed for SMEs, but all employers can benefit from using them in therir organisation.
The resources include a self-assessment questionnaire that provides tailored feedback and actions for employers to take away and implement in their workplace. This is supported by step-by-step guidance on:
- how to develop a workplace policy on sexual harassment,
- how to deal with reports, and
- how to fix workplace culture issues that enable sexual harassment to happen.
We’ve also created informational guides to help employers understand what sexual harassment is and how it happens, because this is the first step to getting it right.
Our guides include information on:
- how to deal with reports and investigations of sexual harassment
- how to create your own workplace policy
- creating a workplace culture that helps prevent sexual harassment
What do employers need to know about sexual harassment?
The term ‘sexual harassment’ covers a spectrum of behaviours which range from subtle and insidious to overt and physically violent. Sexual harassment makes women feel small, undermined, threatened, assaulted and powerless. Black and racialised women, disabled woman, young woman and those in insecure work are at greater risk. All forms of sexual harassment undermine women's safety at work and in their lives.
Sexual harassment isn’t just an issue between two people. It’s also a wider problem related to gender inequality and sexism in the workplace. Sexual harassment, and male-oriented workplace cultures that don’t feel inclusive to women, contribute to the gender pay gap and women’s inequality at work.
Sexual harassment is a gendered issue.
The vast majority of people who experience sexual harassment are women, and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. Research also shows that where men are sexually harassed, the perpetrator is most likely to be another man. This has to be acknowledged, because we can’t fix the problem if we can’t name it.
Gender inequality is the root cause of sexual harassment. Women still have less power and status than men in the workplace, and it’s this that creates an environment in which sexualised comments are dismissed as ‘just banter’, in which women are told ‘it wasn’t meant that way’, and in which women aren’t believed. This power imbalance is even more acute for Black and racialised women, LGBT women, disabled women and young women. It is also why male harassers are rarely held accountable.
Sexual harassment in the workplace.
Most employers care about employee wellbeing. They take steps to make sure workplaces are safe and welcoming. But there can be a blind spot when it comes to sexual harassment. It can feel uncomfortable to talk about workplace sexual harassment, and this enables it to keep happening.
It can be easy for an employer to think that sexual harassment doesn’t happen in their business. They may never have had an employee report sexual harassment. However, an absence of reports doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, or won’t.
Sexual harassment is routinely under-reported. A survey found that 80% of victim-survivors didn’t report unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer. There's a wide range of reasons why women don't report. They think there's no point because nothing will change, they think that they won't be belived, and they worry that they'll be blamed or ostracised
These aren’t just imagined scenarios, these are real-life examples of women’s experiences of reporting. Women who have been sexually harassed at work see these things happening to other women, and the cycle of under-reporting continues.
Sexual harassment can have serious professional, financial, and psychological impacts. The impact of sexual harassment on employees includes:
- Feelings of embarrassment, shame and humiliation;
- Avoiding certain work situations like meetings, or particular shifts;
- Feeling less confident at work;
- Taking time off sick to avoid a harasser; and
- Leaving a role or job.
This sees women losing out in their careers and businesses losing key people. Women often leave organisations where sexual harassment is common and goes unaddressed.
Sexual harassment also has a negative effect on colleagues and the wider business. Where sexist jokes and comments are tolerated this creates a conducive context for more serious cases of sexual violence including rape or sexual assault, damage to the business’s reputation, the loss of good employees, and a toxic work environment.
It’s clear that sexual harassment has serious bottom line consequences. The negative impact on staff morale and productivity undermines business effectiveness. There can be extra costs arising from administrative difficulties from unplanned time off, lost wages and sick pay.Businesses also face wider financial and reputational risks if they fail to deal with sexual harassment.
What do employers need to do?
Employers have a key role to play in tackling and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. It makes good business sense – and it’s the right thing to do – to support employees who have experienced sexual harassment. Employers also have a legal duty to address and prevent sexual harassment in their organisation.
The way you deal with sexual harassment at work sends a strong signal to your employees, and your current and prospective clients, how seriously you take it. If you take visible and proactive steps to tackle and prevent sexual harassment it lets your people know that you do take it seriously. This builds trust in your employees to report sexual harassment if it happens, lets everyone know that it has no place in your workplace, and creates a safe and inclusive workplace culture that will help prevent it from happening in the first place.
Our Think Business Think Equality resources can help employers meet their legal duty, deal with sexual harassment if it happens, and create a workplace that prevents it from happening in the first place.
You can find our resources here:
- What you need to know about sexual harassment
- How to: develop a sexual harassment policy
- How to: deal with reports of sexual harassment
- How to: create a culture that prevents sexual harassment
You can also watch our webinar for employers on tackling workplace sexual harassment here.
Think Business, Think Equality also includes resources on key aspects of employment practice including flexible working, workplace culture, pay and reward, progression and promotion, pregnancy and maternity, job segregation and domestic abuse.
Find out more about how your business can benefit from gender equality and diversity at www.thinkbusinessthinkequality.org.uk.