A problem in every sector
Sexual harassment has become a global talking point in recent years, with an unprecedented number of allegations coming to light in Hollywood and the revolutionary start of the #metoo movement. The threat of sexual intimidation and assault can happen in any workplace and lone workers are often the ones most at risk. Sexual harassment can happen at any time, in any place, to anyone.
Research demonstrates the scale of the problem
A 2017 survey commissioned by the BBC revealed that a shocking 50% of women, and one-fifth of the men questioned, said they had been sexually harassed at work. 63% of those women and 79% of men said they didn't report it to anyone.
A widescale European study carried out by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that roughly half of women in the EU-28 have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15 (83 million to 102 million women) . Of those women who experienced it, one third reported that the perpetrator was known to them in a work context – such as a colleague, boss or customer.
There is a particular problem in the hospitality sector. Preliminary research by Unite, in their #NotOnTheMenu survey, found that 89% of workers in the hospitality industry said they had experienced one or more incidents of sexual harassment in their working life. 77% of respondents didn’t know if their workplace had an anti-sexual harassment policy in place.
Defining sexual harassment
The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of harassment, and is specifically outlawed by the Equality Act 2010, just like harassment related to protected characteristics such as gender and ethnicity.
Sexual harassment can happen to people of any gender. Workers can be sexually harassed by people of the same sex or the opposite sex. However, statistics show that an overwhelming majority of sexual harassment claims and charges are brought by women who were sexually harassed by men. Something can still be considered sexual harassment even if the alleged harasser didn't mean for it to be. It also doesn't have to be intentionally directed at a specific person.
Harassment can take a wide range of forms
Any conduct of a sexual nature that makes an employee uncomfortable has the potential to be sexual harassment.
Requests of demands for sex acts.
Unwanted physical contact; touching, hugging, kissing.
Written or verbal comments of a sexual nature (such as remarks about someone's appearance, questions about their sex life or offensive jokes).
Displaying or sharing pornographic or explicit images.
Sharing emails with content of a sexual nature.
Posting, sharing and targeting social media content of a sexual nature.
Any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment.
Impact: Just a bit of banter?
In 2016 the TUC conducted a report into sexual harassment in the workplace called ‘Still just a bit of banter?’ The TUC undertook this research in collaboration with the Everyday Sexism project in response to the lack of up-to-date, quantitative data on sexual harassment in the workplace. Some shocking statistics are shown below. Critically, a staggering 80% did not report the sexual harassment to their employer. Employers must be proactive in tackling the issue.
35% of women have heard comments of a sexual nature being made about other women in the workplace.
32% of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature.
28% of women have been subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes.
Just under 25% of women have experienced unwanted touching (such as a hand on the knee or lower back).
20% reported that their line manager or someone else with direct authority over them was the perpetrator.
First, create a strong sexual harassment policy. The policy should begin by stating that the organisation is committed to providing a workplace free of discrimination and harassment. It’s also a good idea to mention that no one who comes forward with a claim will be adversely affected in employment.
Ensure the policy is always consistent with employment laws and applicable legislative changes, update your staff handbook and distribute it to your entire workforce.
Once you have a policy in place, it's essential to communicate it to your staff team.
Training sessions should be set up to present the policy, allowing staff to ask questions if they have any. If you have employees who work varied shifts or outside normal business hours, arrange training sessions to accommodate their schedules.
If employees who fall into this category attend training during non-work hours, remind them that it is mandatory, paid training.
Ensure regular training is delivered to help prevent sexual harassment. Make sure staff understand what constitutes sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour.
Teach workers how to assess risks, how to deal with inappropriate behaviour and how they can support a colleague who may be experiencing harassment.
Remind staff that any investigations require full cooperation from the employee, the alleged harasser and any witnesses.
20% of men have been sexually harassed at work
The fact that men are less likely to experience sexual harassment may exacerbate feelings of shame or embarrassment when it does happen. One man told the TUC about the impact that a sexual assault at work had on him.
"It affected my self-confidence. The attack was a male-on-male assault. I’m gay but I wasn’t ‘out’ at work and the experience made me feel I couldn't come out in the workplace after it.” Anon.
SOURCE TUC SURVEY
Acknowledge, respond and investigate
A recent poll by ‘Opinion Research’ revealed that of those who had reported a sexual harassment incident at work, 12% said the incident was not even acknowledged by their company. 31% of respondents said the incident was acknowledged but no action was taken, and 30% said that the offender was given a warning but allowed to remain in the workplace. All complaints of sexual harassment should be taken very seriously and handled fairly and sensitively.
Taking immediate action to investigate and address a situation where an employee reports sexual harassment can not only decrease or eliminate your organisation’s liability, but it also lets employees know that this kind of inappropriate behaviour has consequences and will not be tolerated.
It should go without saying that experiencing sexual harassment can be extremely distressing for the worker involved. That exacerbates the difficulty in reporting an incident. Those experiencing harassment can end up on extended sick leave because of fear and stress, or even be forced to leave their job and look for other employment. This naturally has a negative impact on the employer, as well as the employee.
Employers should make reporting sexual harassment as stress-free as possible. This involves simple things like ensuring there is plenty of time to discuss the matter, and finding a private space to meet.
Workers have the right to be accompanied by a colleague or a union representative at a grievance meeting involving allegations of sexual harassment. It may help to allow the worker to be accompanied by a friend or family member.
Of course, it’s also likely to be distressing for the worker who has been accused of sexual harassment. Accused workers must be offered support and treated fairly.
Say no to sexual harassment at work
Changing attitudes and industry culture is essential. By understanding that sexual harassment is far more widespread than we might first think it is important that the message is cascaded down from top management that it will not be tolerated.
To support this a clear and properly explained corporate policy needs to be in place. Internally, informal and formal procedures should be implemented to support staff to say no. With the advent of easy-to-use technology, it is highly advisable to provide systems that help employees summon help quickly in a crisis.
We all need to stand up and say no to sexual harassment at work. Putting the right measures in place to safeguard your workforce is the first important step.
Safe Hub provides assistance if someone goes too far
Safe Hub can help to protect lone workers if they experience sexual harassment and need help fast. It connects employees via apps and devices, to a state-of-the-art Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC).
There, highly trained officers can direct emergency services to the worker’s exact location in the fastest possible time using GPS.
High-quality, two-way audio means lone workers can talk directly to the ARC, explain their situation and request help. The emergency services can be directed to the worker's exact location.
Safe Hub can also be used as a virtual buddy. The ARC operative will stay on the call with a worker, should they feel at risk, actively listening as events unfold. Merely using Safe Hub can send out the reassuring and firm message: ‘I am not alone.’