How to prevent and stop sexual harassment in the workplace

How to prevent and stop sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace blog cover image of #MeToo on grey wall

What we’ve learned from the Weinstein trial

The Equality and Human Rights Commission in its guidance says that no workplace is immune to sexual harassment and that a lack of reported cases does not mean that it hasn’t occurred.The last few years have shown us how true this is. We have witnessed high profile cases in the third sector, in politics, in the arts, in religious institutions, in the City – the list goes on.

Research conducted by the Trades Union Congress showed that over half of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment. This figure edges close to two-thirds of women aged 18-24 years old who have been sexually harassed or assaulted in their place of work. The courageous voices of activists have ensured that sexual harassment is increasingly on the radar. And training programmes in Bullying and Harassment have brought this greater awareness into the workplace. And yet, we need to do more to ensure that no one is ever subjected to sexual misconduct.

The verdict in the Harvey Weinstein case shows us that speaking out can make a difference. That your voice is listened to. But what we have learnt from this case is that the response from institutions is all too often to protect the person in power and not to hear those people brave enough to make a complaint. During the trial, we became aware of the vast number of points during Weinstein’s history of abuse where he could have been stopped and where bystanders could have spoken out. Whilst Hollywood and the movie industry may seem miles away from the typical workplace, we have seen that there are similar patterns in some UK workplaces.

Tackling sexual harassment in the workplace

It’s possible that we feel powerless about tackling sexual harassment, especially if the perpetrator is someone as powerful as Harvey Weinstein. We need to know where we start when challenging this behaviour. We must begin by reframing the responsibility of speaking up away solely from the victims of sexual harassment and into a collective responsibility for us all to act when we witness harassment, inappropriate behaviour or even sexual assault in the workplace. It’s crucial that no one turns their head away when witnessing any form of inappropriate behaviour.

Work on diversity and inclusion in the workplace can be divided into the following two categories:

1. Proactive work to change the outcomes for under-represented groups (including existing and prospective staff, customers, service users, etc).

2. Keeping organisations and their employees safe.

The first of these might mean developing a more inclusive recruitment process. This may also be increasing awareness of and taking action against unconscious bias, running positive action initiatives, or setting up support networks, as well as all of those other things we can do to build more inclusive cultures.

With the second point, tackling sexual harassment at an organisational level is a key component in keeping everyone in our workplaces safe. This means both health and safety, of course, but also making sure that everyone knows what is appropriate behaviour at work.

When my nephew was seven, he asked me what I did. I described some of my work to him. I thought, when describing working as a Head of Diversity, that the easiest aspect for him to grasp would be reasonable adjustments. I told him that I helped people get to work each day. “Ah,” he said, “you’re a lollipop lady.” I think it’s a great image for our work: we help people get to their destination safely. And we make sure that preventable dangers are managed through the benign use of authority, role clarity and consistent signposting or messaging.

Responding to sexual harassment – the importance of workplace policy

Our policies are our main tool in setting out expectations of good conduct at work, these include: Equal Opportunities, Bullying and Harassment, Sexual harassment and so on. These policies must be clear as crystal in setting out the organisation’s values and its requirements under the Equality Act 2010. And although a policy can’t cover every aspect of unwanted behaviour, it needs to clarify what sexual harassment is and that it could be gross misconduct.

Right now, everyone working in diversity should be checking their policies. We must ensure that our policies communicate the right things, and that there is a formal procedure in place should anyone have a complaint. Follow-through assurances must be given to anyone who flags misconduct. Looking the other way does not help anyone.

A policy refresh is a good moment to communicate the importance of these. Ensure that your entire workforce are aware of the procedures in place, and the culture you expect from them every day. This, of course, should be reinforced by management training and as part of induction. (Check out our policy design and strategy services if you need help.)

Going back to the lollipop lady metaphor now is the time to hold up that big sign that shows everyone that your organisation is safe and takes care of its people. To push the metaphor further, the lights showing it’s safe are the messages from the top and the zebra crossing is all the things you do to create the right culture. So, codes of conduct setting out clear expectations of behaviour are important. And of course, messages from the top matter in setting the tone for the whole organisation (see how Inclusive Leadership training can help).

Helen Mahy, the Commissioner at the EHRC has pledged that “if I see or become aware of harassment in the organisations where I work – be that in the boardroom or outside of it – I will speak out and do something about it.  And I would call on my fellow business leaders to do the same” – will you do the same?

What next?

The EW Group has been running diversity and inclusion training for the past 28 years. Our consultants and staff can advise you on the best route to achieving a safe and inclusive culture.

Find out how we can help you.

Teresa Norman is a Diversity and Talent Management Consultant for EW Group. Teresa's work covers both strategic work and delivery. Her specialisms include policy development, investigations, research, coaching, facilitation and talent management - with a focus on working at an organisational level to build inclusive cultures. Teresa's expertise has meant she's EW Groups go-to for research having delivered many reports for EW Group's extensive client base, including co-authoring the report, 'A Regional Approach to Talent Management' for the NHS London Leadership Academy.

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