“Hiya big tits!” Not your typical office greeting and one which landed the manager of a cleaning company at an employment tribunal accused (and found guilty) of sexual harassment. Surely though, such remarks are not commonplace in a twenty-first century office environment?

If only that were so. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is still routine in UK workplaces. Just recently the TUC published a survey revealing that over half of women have been sexually harassed at work in the UK. Among young women aged 16-24, this figure rises to 63%.

Let’s just go over that again. Half of the women surveyed had been sexually harassed AT WORK. Not down a dodgy back alley on the wrong side of town but in a modern day place of work, a professional environment which should be, above all, safe and secure. When you think of a bad day at the office, being groped or leered at isn’t automatically what springs to mind but sadly this is the case for many female workers.

So what is this ‘harassment’ you may wonder. A bit of office banter? A sexist joke taken too far? Whilst such things certainly fall under the definition of harassment, startlingly a quarter of the survey’s respondents cited actual physical contact in the form of unwanted touching and/or kissing.  One in eight of respondents referenced unwanted contact that is defined by law as sexual assault. Using those statistics, let’s take for example an office that has 200 staff; assuming that half of them are women, that’s 25 women who have been sexually harassed in a physical way whilst at work. That’s not to mention the other 25 who’ve been victim to verbal or written harassment.

Why have we not heard about this before you may ask? Shockingly because four out of five incidents are not reported for fear of not being taken seriously or in fear of being forced to leave. Again, let’s go over this. 80% of people who are sexually harassed at work don’t report it because they are too frightened or worried about losing their job?? There’s something not right here.

Although this particular survey highlights harassment experienced by women at work, it’s worth remembering that harassment can be a case of women harassing men as well as men harassing women, or between same sex parties. Aside from face to face encounters, harassment could also happen over the phone or on email, or via social media or video calls.  Harassment is in fact defined as any behaviour that can make someone feel intimidated or offended, in this case, due to their sex.

What can be done about it? Employers carry a huge responsibility for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their employees. In fact they are legally responsible for preventing harassment and liable for any harassment that is suffered at work by their employees. Sexual harassment is archaic, immoral and thankfully, illegal. Employers must therefore ensure that they have taken steps to rule out any form of harassment in their workplace or face the consequences (fines, business closure, even imprisonment):

  • Operate a zero tolerance policy: it must be absolutely clear that any form of harassment will not be tolerated and that any act of harassment at work will be dealt with immediately and appropriately. Really, there is no overkill when it comes to stressing this point.
  • Ensure the process for making a complaint is clear with a well-documented grievance policy which offers assurance and guidance to those affected. Offer options, for example, if an employee can’t approach their line manager, there needs to be an impartial and confidential contact that they can go to.
  • Offer support and advice for anyone who makes a claim for harassment. This includes action to mitigate any immediate risk, for example, moving them out of a department or specific situation, and long term assistance which may be counselling or the like.
  • Educate your workforce at all levels. Explain what is (and isn’t) appropriate behaviour and what happens to anyone who is found to be harassing someone. Remember that the ‘workplace’ extends to any company organised social events so the same standards of behaviour will apply in those situations.
  • Offer further training to line managers, particularly if there isn’t an in-house HR Department. Will they be able to make good decisions if a case of harassment is brought to them? They should be able to rationalise a situation and assess it in the context of the organisation and the industry.

At great{with}diversity, as our name suggests, diversity and inclusion is our forte. If you want to understand more about building a strong culture of inclusivity to maximise the potential of your workforce, get in touch. We’ve proven time and again that companies who invest in building diversity and inclusion have the competitive advantage.

Visit our website www.great{with}diversity.com for more information about our products and services.