August 12, 2016

How can HR help tackle sexual harassment in the workplace?

More than half of women (52%) have experienced sexual harassment at work. Moreover, that figure rises to nearly two-thirds (63%) for women aged 18-24. So says new research conducted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in conjunction with the Everyday Sexism Project.

The survey of 1,500 women found that not only is sexual harassment still rife in the workplace today, but that many women feel uncomfortable about reporting incidences and when they do, many say their complaints are not taken seriously.

What is the nature of the sexual harassment? The research found that:

– nearly one in three (32%) of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work
– more than one in four (28%) have been the subject of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work
– nearly a quarter (23%) of women have experienced unwanted touching at work – such as a hand on the knee or lower back
– a fifth (20%) have experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work
– around one in eight (12%) have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work

In the vast majority of these cases (88%), the perpetrators were men. Moreover, in 17% of cases (that’s nearly one in five), women said the perpetrator was either their line manager or someone with direct authority over them.

A very high number (79%) of women who had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work said they did not tell their employer about it. Why not? Close to a third (28%) thought it would have a negative impact on their relationships at work or on their career prospects (15%), while 20% were too embarrassed to talk about it and 24% felt they would not be believed or taken seriously.

In the light of the report, called ‘Still just a bit of banter?’, TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Employers must be clear they have a zero tolerance attitude to sexual harassment and treat any complaint seriously. It’s a scandal that so few women feel their bosses are dealing with the issue properly.”

The law stipulates that employers must protect employees from sexual harassment, under sex discrimination guidelines. However, that is not enough. HR and employers must have strong, coherent and enforceable guidelines on sexual harassment at work. It needs to be made clear to the entire workforce that sexual harassment is not acceptable and that it will not be tolerated.

HR should also provide training for managers on how to identify when sexual harassment is taking place and how to tackle it.

Lastly, but not certainly not least, HR and employers must help those who are the victims of sexual harassment to feel confident about stepping forward to report the situation. This means there must be visible channels of communication, that confidentiality is maintained and that people know that their claims will be taken seriously and investigated. They also need to know that in speaking out, their reputational and professional standing will not be damaged.