Tackling sexual harassment at work: The building blocks

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HR professionals must understand sexual harassment, and the building blocks to structural and cultural change​

The TUC's research into sexual harassment found that a disturbing 52% of women have experienced it at work. Sadly, nothing new.

HR professionals committed to ensuring that sexual harassment is being effectively prevented and dealt with need to understand the structural and cultural factors that enable sexual harassment. Only then can they implement the relevant structural and cultural change to tackle it.

As much as I wish sexual harassment would go away overnight, the reality is that it will take time. Here are a few building blocks that HR professionals can use to start creating safer work environments for us all.

Understand sexual harassment

From the outset it is important to understand three things:

  • Sexual harassment is about power, not passion.
  • Women’s experiences are not all the same – age, ethnicity, level of seniority, disability, sexual orientation and type of work contract all affect the likelihood of being sexually harassed.
  • Employees do not feel that they can report their experience. The TUC found that four out of five women did not report the sexual harassment they experienced to their employer, corroborating our own Project 28-40 findings that there is a clear gap between employers’ policies and women’s lived experiences.

What are your workplace characteristics?

Workplace hierarchies absolutely influence sexual harassment, but there are other characteristics that influence the likelihood and seriousness of sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Workplace anonymity. Large employers will have formal grievance procedures to protect against serious abuse, yet sheer scale can mean perpetrators are more able to act without others becoming aware and victims more likely to feel isolated and unable to report incidents.
  • Male-dominated and physical work. This fosters male solidarity and centres on the physical body. The presence of women in this type of workplace can be felt as a threat to masculinity, leading to increased incidences.
  • Lack of line manager and co-worker solidarity. Workforces where employees are less invested in colleagues’ wellbeing means individuals are less willing to intercede if sexual harassment is witnessed – enabling it to occur and continue.
  • Gender composition. Sexual harassment is more likely to occur in workplaces or teams with a high proportion of men; it is easier and safer to target those in the minority.

Building blocks for structural change

  • Review your existing policy and ensure it includes a holistic and clear definition of sexual harassment, from inappropriate comments through to physical abuse.
  • Measure and monitor instances of sexual harassment through anonymous staff surveys and focus groups facilitated by external and impartial researchers, as well as formal HR systems.
  • Establish informal and formal confidential reporting processes. Communicate these widely and regularly.
  • When designing policy and procedure consider different cultural norms and whether the victim is in an insecure role (e.g. contract/zero hours).
  • Ensure each workplace has multiple ‘go-to’ people for those experiencing sexual harassment.
  • Recruit (and retain) more women and men into non-traditional ‘gendered’ roles.

Building blocks for culture change

  • Regularly communicate policy and behaviour standards to staff. Many may not be aware of the process or action that could be taken, and/or unclear about what behaviour is unacceptable.
  • Educate staff to improve attitudes. Train all employees, men included, on sexual harassment – what it is and how to call it out. Open up discussions about the ambiguity of some sexual behaviour and language. Use anonymous examples from within your organisation to ensure it resonates.
  • Leaders and managers must be seen to take a strong line on harassment and regularly communicate what is and isn’t acceptable.
  • Take action against perpetrators regardless of their position. This sends the strongest message that sexual harassment is not tolerated. Many women speak of senior-level perpetrators getting away with harassment and it being them rather than the perpetrator who is moved, penalised or has to leave the company.
  • Develop inclusive leadership behaviours in all managers.
  • Encourage team work, collaboration and relationship building, rather than internal competition.
  • Launch internal campaigns about everyday sexism, discrimination and harassment to raise awareness. Use printed and digital communications to reach all employees.

Tackling sexual harassment will take comprehensive change; not only in our workplaces but also in society’s attitudes towards women. Yet HR professionals can take the lead in changing embedded structural and cultural systems to create truly safe workplaces.

Kathryn Nawrockyi is gender equality director at Business in the Community (BITC)

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