October 5, 2016

Half the women in your workplace face sexual harassment

Many would like to think that sexual harassment in the workplace was a thing of the past, something our progressive modern world has left behind – like boozy lunches, typing pools and overflowing desktop ashtrays.

But if the recent sexual harassment allegations around presidential-nominee Donald Trump’s past conduct serve any purpose, it’s that they remind us that sexual harassment is an issue women in all types roles face in the workplace.

Now, findings from a recent TUC survey bear out the stark reality of sexual harassment facing women every day.

Over half say they have experienced sexual harassment at work, rising to two-thirds for some of the youngest employees in the workplace – 18-24 year-olds.

Sexual harassment is clearly a live issue for all employers, so what is it and what steps can you take to protect your employees?

First things first: what is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can take many forms, from circulating pornography, suggestive remarks and jokes about a colleague’s sex life, to unwelcome hugging, touching or demands for sexual favours.

A single incident can amount to sexual harassment, as can a series of incidents over a period of time.

The TUC survey found:

  • nearly one-in-three women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work
  • more than one-in-four women have been the subject of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work
  • nearly a quarter of women have experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work
  • a fifth of women have experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work
  • around one-in-eight women have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work

How to protect your employees from sexual harassment

As soon as you are made aware of a sexual harassment allegation ensure you investigate thoroughly and take the necessary action – do not dismiss it as ‘just a bit on banter’.

Ignoring it could be deemed to accepting it.

While some claims may seem flippant and unthreatening to some, it is the recipient who will decide whether they feel it is inappropriate.

All claims should be investigated and this should include speaking to the claimant, witnesses, and the employee concerned.

Where there is reasonable belief that sexual harassment has occurred, it should result in the matter being referred to a disciplinary meeting. As with all disciplinary warnings and dismissals a fair process must be followed and employers should also consider previous instances and how these were dealt with.

Make sure you polices are up to date and communicated to your employees

While you as the employer should be seen to deal with all incidents, employees should recognise their own obligation to report incidents. This should be made clear by internal communications and by clarifying the point in Equal Opportunities, Bullying and Harassment or Disciplinary and Grievance policies.

Policies should also make clear you have a zero-tolerance approach to any form of harassment and it will be dealt with under the disciplinary procedure – with breaches possibly leading to dismissal for gross misconduct.

Once any investigations or disciplinary proceedings have been completed, employers should give careful consideration to how the outcome/findings are communicated to the parties involved, particularly the alleged recipient of the act.

This will often need to be handled sensitively and possibly include discussing arrangements to support the recipient.

Ensure that individuals who raised the allegations are not subject to unfavourable treatment after raising their complaint. Such unfavourable treatment could lead to claims of victimisation.

Incidents outside of work – be proactive about Christmas parties and other social events

The TUC survey suggests that acts of sexual harassment often happen at company social events.

Be proactive – remind employees in advance of the need for appropriate behaviour. Inform them the event is in an extension of the workplace, appropriate standards are expected, and allegations of any inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with formally.

If you are concerned about sexual harassment in your organisation or you would like policy documents specific to your workplace issue visit www.moorepay.co.uk or call 0845 184 4615.

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About the author

Gillian Smith

Gill has over 10 years HR generalist experience within the retail and industrial service sectors.Whilst providing HR support and services at the most senior levels Gill’s experience includes mergers and acquisitions, complex TUPE transfers, organisational development, and strategic change management. Gill has experience in the policy development process from design, consulting with directors and employee representatives through to implementation and delivering training workshops on the new polices. Gill currently is an HR policy consultant who services a variety of clients.