Sexual Harassment at work- what have we learned?

Generated as a response to allegations of harassment and sexual assaults in Hollywood, the #MeToo movement shone the spotlight firmly on the subject of sexual harassment across the globe and all sectors of society.

It’s hard to believe two years have passed since the movement hit the headlines. Here we examine why instances of sexual harassment continue despite challenges to attitudes and crucially whether employers are really doing enough to protect their workforce.

The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi last month reported on a new study to be published in the journal Organizational Dynamics, which has found, via their cross sector research, some rather concerning emerging attitudes, including:

• 27% of men avoid one-on-one meetings with female co-workers.
• 21% of men said they would be reluctant to hire women for a job that would require close interaction (such as business travel).

Are we really to believe that the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction since the #MeToo movement, that we now actually find that employers are reluctant to hire women and that men are terrified of working with women? Has #MeToo created its own ‘project fear’?

Whatever the emerging attitudes, one fact remains, namely that sexual harassment still an issue for both men and women in the workplace.

Don’t ignore the problem- seek advice from our experts who are on hand 24 hours a day to provide advice on this topic as well as all aspects of HR and Employment Law.

What is harassment?

The good thing to come out of the above research was that most of those surveyed seemed able to identify what constitutes harassment in the workplace and whilst this is reassuring on one level, employers must not assume awareness alone solves the problem.

In fact, harassment in general is usually thought of as being something which is carried out over time, such as a long and deliberate campaign of bullying. That is not always the case, harassment can be a one-off incident such as making a racist comment or in this context one incident of unwanted sexual contact.

Sexual harassment can be in the form of suggestive remarks, circulating pornography, making offensive jokes of a sexual nature and so on. However inappropriate touching of a sexual nature without consent will constitute sexual assault, which is of course a criminal act.

For more information, please visit our article on Harassment and workplace banter here.

Do our laws go far enough and where would someone make a complaint regarding sexual harassment at work?

In July the government launched a consultation into whether the current laws protecting us from sexual harassment in the workplace are fit for purpose.

Currently employers are legally accountable under the Equality Act for sexual harassment occurring at work, even if they did not know it was happening and particularly if they did not take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent it from happening.

The most common route for employees would be to take their employer to an Employment Tribunal, however employers may also be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights commission as well as the Health and Safety Executive.

Under government proposals, there are calls to place a mandatory protective duty on employers to ensue that they are doing enough to protect their workforce in providing an environment free from harassment, as opposed to simply being liable after the harassment has taken place.

The use of non-disclosure agreements is also very likely to become unlawful in relation to cases involving harassment and discrimination. This is welcome news for campaigners because it will prevent employers from brushing incidents like this under the carpet and relying on confidentiality clauses to silence employees.

So, prevention seems to be better than cure but will a change in law/amendments to employers’ duties really solve the problem?

We certainly have some of the most comprehensive laws in this country to tackle harassment and discrimination but from my experience, mainly working with small businesses, employers seem to be missing valuable opportunities early doors to stop harassment.

This seems to be because they are only made aware that harassment has taken place once a formal complaint has been submitted, by which point the employee may have resigned or may have been signed off work due to work related stress.

I am yet to encounter an employer who genuinely feels indifferent to harassment but there is a sense of feeling quite ‘hard done by’ if they are being held responsible for the actions of another person and employers often feel protected by the fact they have a personal harassment policy in place.

However, having a policy is not enough and I find it staggering the number of employers who appoint someone to a managerial role without ensuring they know how to implement such policies.

Once a harassment complaint is received it usually becomes apparent very quickly that at least one other person in a position of authority was aware there was a problem prior to the matter escalating to a formal complaint. Rather than taking the opportunity to nip it in the bud, the behaviour usually gets dismissed as ‘friendly banter’.

This reflects very badly on the employer and if legal action is taken it makes it almost impossible to argue that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent the harassment. Added to that the fact that the manager was not suitably trained, or even aware in some instances, of how to spot and tackle harassment and things start to look bleak for the employer. Not to mention the impact on the person who has suffered the sexual harassment.

What should businesses be doing?

The first thing to do is get advice on ensuring that you have the best policies and procedures in place. If you already have them, then make sure they up to date. Our experts are on hand to provide bespoke guidance on managing incidents of harassment and ensuring your documentation is up to date and robust.

You then ensure they are rolled out effectively to ensure that your employees know exactly what your standards are and crucially how they go about raising any concerns they have, along with how those concerns will be dealt with.

Once those procedures are in place, don’t just allow them to gather dust, take the opportunity to redistribute these policies regularly and ensure that those who are responsible for managing people know how to act.
Also, as a business owner, be sure to set an example to your staff by keeping your own behavioural standards high.


We are perhaps more aware of sexual harassment now than we were two years ago. However, it seems that there is so much more employers can be doing to actively prevent harassment at work.

Does that really mean that we should be very cautious about speaking to or recruiting members of the opposite sex? Does it mean that we turn our workplaces into humour-free zones where employees are micro-managed to within an inch of their lives?

No. It is about proactively ensuring employees are not subjected to a hostile working environment, which harassment (in whatever form) can undoubtedly create and that starts with a commitment to invest in effective communication and training.

Your workforce will thank you for it and you cannot afford to ignore it.

If you have any concerns or would like free advice on this topic or any employment law matter, please call 0800 015 2519 or register for free access to HR24 Dashboard.

Author: Editorial Team

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