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Just a bit of banter - or endemic sexual harassment?

12 August 2016

More than 52% of women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed at work, according to a new report by the Trades Union Congress in conjunction with the Everyday Sexism Project. Perhaps even more surprising than that headline figure is the fact that 79% of the women who said that they had experienced harassment did not inform their employer

More than 52% of women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed at work, according to a new report by the Trades Union Congress in conjunction with the Everyday Sexism Project. Perhaps even more surprising than that headline figure is the fact that 79% of the women who said that they had experienced harassment did not inform their employer.

The legal definition of sexual harassment is unwanted conduct related to sex or of a sexual nature, which has the effect of violating the complainant’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her. This covers a wide range of conduct including indecent remarks or jokes, suggestions about someone’s sex life, inappropriate touching, displaying pornography in the workplace, demands for sexual favours, and even serious physical assaults.

There may be some surprise that the statistics about women suffering unwanted attention and worse at work are so high. The great majority of employers now have a clear policy on bullying and harassment at work and state they have a zero-tolerance approach. It is unlawful for employees to be sexually harassed under the Equality Act 2010, and organisations such as the Everyday Sexism Project have done a fantastic job in challenging stale perceptions of women’s place in the workforce. Individuals also have a greater knowledge and understanding of their legal rights. So where have we been going wrong?

Perhaps part of the answer can be found in the same casual sexism that has been broadcast in coverage of female athletes during the current Olympics. For example, NBC sports commentator Daniel Hicks caused outrage by pointing out Katinka Hosszu’s husband in the crowd after she had just broken the world record for the 400m individual medley and remarking “and there’s the man responsible”. Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune referred to one Olympic medal-winner, Corey Cogdell-Unrein, as the “wife of a Bears’ lineman” – without even using her own name. This “everyday”, cultural sexism to which parts of society still subscribe is also likely to surface in the workplace.

While progress has been made since the days when it was thought a woman was best off staying at home, the TUC report is a timely reminder that both employers and society as a whole cannot be complacent about sexual harassment. Paying lip service to a policy in an employee handbook gathering dust on the shelf is not enough. It does not prevent harassment and, just as importantly, does not give victims the confidence to speak out.

What should employers be doing?

Employers are “vicariously” liable for their employees’ actions - meaning that the employer will be held responsible if an employee is found to have harassed a colleague. The employer will only have a defence to a claim in these circumstances if it took all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment from occurring.

This is a difficult defence to run unless the employer can show that it has trained staff on its anti-harassment policy - including the different forms that harassment can take – and actively encourages staff to report any kind of harassment. Simply including a copy of the handbook in an induction pack or asking employees to sign to confirm they have read the policy is not enough.

Employers should also make sure that managers and supervisors with direct reports receive training on equal opportunities and bullying/harassment in the workplace, including how to deal correctly with complaints. The importance of training is emphasised in the TUC’s recommendations for employers at the end of the report.

Employers also need to show that they implement and enforce their policies in practice. Unwillingness to report harassment is a clear problem highlighted in the TUC report, with 30% of the women surveyed saying they feared a negative impact on working relationships and a further 15% fearing a negative impact on their career. If staff do report incidents of sexual harassment, HR need to take it very seriously and investigate all allegations quickly and consistently, taking disciplinary action when appropriate.

Management also need to look at workplace culture and take a dim view of what some staff call “banter”. Responses such as “eyes do wander” and “boys will be boys”, as related in the TUC report, are clearly not appropriate and could even in themselves amount to harassment.

If employers can show staff that they take all kinds of harassment seriously with a zero-tolerance approach, this in turn will encourage women to feel confident in reporting incidents of sexual harassment. All good employers should want to know what is going on in their organisation and an open approach will also help to show perpetrators that they cannot get away with casual sexism or worse.

We offer a variety of equality and diversity courses for managers and staff which can help you to address these issues – you can find more information here.

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