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An HR Guide to Dealing with Sexual Harassment at Work

Content Warning: This blog deals with the subject of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and rape which some readers might find upsetting.

What can HR professionals do to respond to concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace? How can your department deal with claims of sexual harassment in a way that protects employees and reduces the threat of it in your workplace?

We’ve compiled this guide for HR using advice published by the CIPD – the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which is one of the UK’s leading professional membership bodies for the Human Resources field. They’re responsible for regulating HR and ensuring that those who work in the area are equipped with the right skills and knowledge for their jobs. They’re experts when it comes to everything to do with HR law and procedures, so we’re following their guidance in this blog.

What is sexual harassment at work?

Sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence. It’s defined as unwanted sexual behaviour that distresses, or causes mental harm, to someone.

Legislation exists against sexual harassment, mainly in the form of the Equality Act 2010. Section 26 of this act describes sexual harassment as ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature’. It is also defined as creating an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’.

According to ACAS, an industrial relations public body, whilst employees are responsible for their own behaviour at work, employers can also be responsible in the form of vicarious liability. Likewise, employers also have a duty of care towards their employees to protect them from harm at work.

Rape Crisis England and Wales sums up the (often quite confusing) language of the legislation very succinctly as ‘unwanted sexual behaviour that makes someone feel upset, scared, offended or humiliated, or is meant to make them feel that way.’

Sexual harassment can take many forms and ACAS describes some of these in their comprehensive article. Quoting directly from the article, the body cite things like the following as being examples of sexual harassment:

  • "flirting, gesturing or making sexual remarks about someone's body, clothing or appearance
  • asking questions about someone's sex life
  • telling sexually offensive jokes
  • making sexual comments or jokes about someone's sexual orientation or gender reassignment
  • displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual images, or other sexual content
  • touching someone against their will, for example hugging them"

Likewise, things that other people might think of as ‘banter’ or joking around can still be considered sexual harassment if they are sexual in nature, are unwanted and make the other person fell degraded, humiliated or intimidated in some way.

Two Women Writing Documents

Sexual harassment in the workplace: A UK context

Recent high-profile cases of alleged sexual harassment by celebrities like Russell Brand and even Members of Parliament have helped to highlight this troubling subject, with more people speaking out about their experiences and breaking the silence.

As one of the places where we spend most of our waking hours, our workplaces are a key part of our lives. Whilst many of us might not spend as much time as we used to in our offices, thanks to hybrid and remote working, we still spend a significant chunk of our time in a public setting, surrounded by other people.

Despite our best intentions, any gathering of people in a setting is likely to present safeguarding risks. The risk of sexual harassment, unfortunately, is one of these and a significant one at that.

Recent research by the CIPD found that up to 4% of employees reported being sexually harassed at work in the last three years.

A 2020 government survey discovered similar data: 29% of those surveyed said that they had experienced sexual harassment in their workplace or at work in the last 12 months.

Worryingly, a report by the TUC examining sexual harassment in UK workplaces found that 52% of all women surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment either at work or in general society, over the course of their lives.

If we want to eradicate sexual harassment in our workplaces – or at least, significantly reduce the risk of it happening – we need to develop a comprehensive approach to the subject that combines practical actions with long-term systemic change. Here are a few ideas about how to do that.

How to respond to sexual harassment in the workplace

1.    Ensure that your procedure is fit for purpose

It almost goes without saying that sexual harassment is an extremely serious issue and one that can feel quite overwhelming if you’re trying to process complaints and you don’t have the right process in place to manage it.

Usually an organisation will generally have one generic policy outlining how it will deal with misconduct like bullying or violence.

A serious, complex and distressing scenario like a sexual assault can be made even harder to deal with if your policy is not fit for purpose.

As a result, the CIPD recommends that you consider whether your organisation could benefit from a specific policy on sexual harassment to ensure that it is able to deal with sensitive issues that will likely be raised and dealt with during the course of an investigation.

Checking Over Papers

2.    Examine and developing reporting channels

It’s likely that the majority of sexual harassment cases go unreported. Research presented to a parliamentary committee in the UK in 2018 suggested that up to 75% of sexual harassment cases in the workplace go unreported and undocumented.

If you’re serious about building an inclusive workplace that protects its employees from harm, it’s clear that you need to be encouraging people to report harm as soon as it occurs. This ultimately means creating a workplace environment that gives staff the confidence and comfort to report harassment and not keep it to themselves.

There are a range of reasons why someone might choose to not report sexual harassment, ranging from fears about not being believed, or being harmed by the perpetrator through to worries about job security, being blamed or laughed at.

Investigate how well your reporting systems are currently working by running an audit and staff survey and use the findings to improve it. Consider investing in an anonymous and confidential reporting system for employees to report any abuse, like an online reporting system or a third-party telephone service too. Having dedicated resources like this in pace can help to make sexual harassment cases a lot easier to deal with.

2.    Make it clear that any sexual harassment will not be tolerated

This seems like an obvious point but you would be surprised by the number of organisations that don’t make their commitment to fighting sexual harassment in the workplace transparent to their employees and wider society. If you make it exceptionally clear that your organisation has a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment it becomes obvious to employees that your organisation is treating the issue with the seriousness it deserves. This helps to embed the idea throughout the company.

One step that’s relatively easy to take when it comes to emphasising a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment is to it training in staff inductions. Many cases of sexual harassment slip under the radar because of the seeming culture of silence – a taboo – that exists around raising complaints like this. The more we talk openly about how sexual harassment is something that will not be tolerated, the more confidence we can give survivors to come forward and tell their stories in safety.

3.    Build a professional company culture

Research has shown time and time again that sexual harassment thrives in workplaces where company culture is toxic.

Leading on from our point above, about the need to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, building a strong, positive company culture that treats issues like this with the dedicated respect and sensitivity they require is essential for dealing with cases effectively.

This blog by BetterUp lists some great resources that you can use to create a professional company culture.

5. Ensure that you document everything

Documenting the complaint itself and your subsequent investigation will help to reduce the reputational risk to your organisational, if things escalate to the courts (a rare occurrence but one that can ultimately happen).

Likewise, having clear documentation of the steps, decisions and outcomes that you took during the process of dealing with sexual harassment complaints will provide you with data that you can use to improve the way you respond to future complaints in the future. Unless you have a record of what happened, how you dealt with it, what worked and what didn’t, you’re likely to repeat the same mistakes going forward and to not improve your approach.

Sexual harassment is everyone’s problem at work – not just the HR department’s. That said, most of the work will usually fall to HR departments to investigate complaints and process them. As a result, you need to have a good standard of knowledge and expertise to succeed. One of the best ways that you can build your confidence when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment is to learn. Studying a professional qualification like a CIPD certificate or diploma is often a flexible way that you can fit the demands of your learning around the demands of your life. Whatever path you take, we hope that this blog has helped you develop your skills.

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