EW Group consultant Teresa Norman explores why sexual harassment in the workplace happens, its effects, and actions every leader can immediately take to build safe and inclusive work environments.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is still a problem in many businesses. The Equality and Human Rights Commission states that: “No workplace is immune and a lack of reported cases does not mean that it has not occurred.”
It is now known that it can take years after abuse for someone to come forward so no workplace can ever be complacent. Lately, we have witnessed high profile cases in the third sector, politics, the arts, religious institutions, the City.
Sexual harassment in the workplace must be dealt with, but to do that, it’s crucial that leaders and HR professionals understand the legislation, the impact it has, and the things they can do to prevent it from happening.
What is sexual harassment in the workplace?
According to ACAS, sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature, perpetrated by anyone that an employee encounters due to their employment. If the abuser is unaware what they are doing constitutes harassment, this does not matter – the effects do.
The Equality Act 2010 provides protection against unlawful, direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation for all the protected characteristics including sex (gender), which means that sexual harassment is illegal.
Workplace sexual harassment in the UK: Statistics and effects
With sexual harassment firmly in the media spotlight and there being increasingly severe consequences for high profile offenders, it’s easy to think that we are successfully dealing with the problem. Sadly, there is still a long way to go.
According to a 2023 poll from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), 3 in 5 women have experienced harassment at work – rising to almost 2 in 3 women aged 25 to 34. Most of these cases were not isolated incidents with more than three in five (57%) women saying they’ve experienced three or more incidents of bullying at work. Furthermore:
- 43% women have experienced at least three incidents of sexual harassment
- 45% of those women say that it has had a detrimental impact on their mental health
- 25% say they avoided certain work situations, like meetings, courses, locations and shifts, to avoid the perpetrator
- 18% left their job as a result of this treatment
It’s shocking how much can go wrong – even when it’s reported. Sometimes, even now, we live in a time when the victim of unwanted behaviour is the person who pays a price. In 2020, a survey of callers to Rights of Women’s sexual harassment at work advice line found that:
- 59% of callers said they had received ‘less favourable treatment’ after rejecting, submitting to, or reporting sexual harassment
- 44% reported sexual assault in the workplace
- 31% said their report was not investigated
- 17% were subjected to bullying after reporting an incident
- 10% were threatened with dismissal or dismissed
- 9% lost out on a promotion or employment benefit
- 22% of callers were dismissed or resigned due to being sexually harassed
- 45% had experienced multiple forms of harassment, such as racist abuse
As these statistics show, sexual harassment in workplace is often ignored; perpetrators are left to continue. The research speaks for itself – we have a long way to go.
How to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace
It’s possible that we feel powerless about tackling sexual harassment, especially if the perpetrator holds a senior position within an organisation. So, leaders, managers and staff all need to know where to start when challenging this behaviour.
1. Understand what constitutes sexual harassment and why it occurs
Leaders, managers, and HR need to first educate themselves on what sexual harassment is so incidents can be properly identified and dealt with seriously.
Part of the stages of devising strategies and processes that stop harassment is understanding why it happens in the first place.
Typically, sexual harassment occurs due to unequal power relations; the abuser is in a position of power which means they are much less likely to be punished – and their victim is less likely to address or report the abuse.
That’s why women are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment, because they are much less likely to be in positions of power in the workplace due to gender inequality, and because of the wider gender inequality and sexism prevalent throughout society.
Abuse can be a means of perpetuating this inequality too. If a person in a position of power feels threatened by someone beneath them – a woman rising the ranks, or an employee that appears more skilled, for example – they may use harassment as a means of creating tension and vulnerability that puts a stop to the perceived threat to their power.
Organisations themselves have a role to play as well. If a business doesn’t have clear, well-communicated processes in place to deal with sexual harassment, or a culture that is actively seen to punish instances of harassment, then it sends a message to would-be abusers that their actions will not invite consequences, and the cycle of abuse continues.
That means it’s very much a leader’s role to create a workplace where bullying and harassment – including that of a sexual nature – is unable to take root.
2. Reframe the abuse through training, awareness, and leadership
Organisations must reframe 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 incidents occur, so that means it’s on all of us.
Work on diversity and inclusion in the workplace can be divided into the following two categories:
- Proactive work to change the outcomes for under-represented groups (including existing and prospective staff, customers, service users, etc).
- Keeping organisations and their employees safe.
The first of these might mean developing a more inclusive recruitment process. This may also mean 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 key to keeping everyone in our workplaces safe. This means both health and safety, of course, but also making sure that everyone knows what appropriate behaviour at work is.
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.
3. Update your workplace policies
Policies are a leader’s main tool in setting out expectations of good conduct at work, such as equal opportunities, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, and so on.
These policies must be crystal clear 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 constitute gross misconduct.
Leaders and HR managers must ensure that policies communicate the right things, and that there is a formal procedure in place should anyone have a complaint. This means following up with anyone who flags misconduct, keeping them informed of how you are tackling the complaint. Looking the other way does not help anyone.
A policy refresh is a good moment to communicate the importance of your policies. Ensure that your entire workforce is 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.
Returning to the lollipop lady metaphor, it’s crucial you hold up a 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. 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, 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?
EW Group has been running diversity and inclusion training for almost 30 years. Our consultants and staff can advise you on the best route to achieving a safe and inclusive culture.