How to Call Out Sexual Harassment

Written by Mark Rowland Friday 30 August 2019
Sexual harassment should always be dealt with swiftly and decisively – here’s what to do in the event of an incident

Still a Bit of Banter? is a joint reserch report written by TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project which found that 52 percent of surveyed women and 63 percent of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment at work. Not only do businesses have a legal requirement to act when receiving a sexual harassment complaint, but managers have a duty of care to their staff; they must deal with any incidents swiftly in order to maintain a positive and productive working culture.

Perhaps a member of your team has come to you with a complaint against a colleague, or maybe you’ve spotted another manager or member of staff engaging in inappropriate behaviour. So what actually counts as harassment?

Under the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is defined as when a person engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating another person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.

Examples of such behaviour include: displaying sexually suggestive materials, such as a pornographic calendar; a worker touching a colleagues knee and/or making sexually suggestive comments; emails sent with sexually suggestive comments or explicit pictures within them; jokes of a sexual nature that upset some people within the office; or unwanted attention at workplace events, such as a Christmas party. If you are approached with a complaint or spot an incident in the workplace, here are the steps you should take.

Listen to the Complaint Carefully

You need to make sure you have all the facts in hand. Ask them questions about the incident to get as much detail as possible, and make sure you take notes of everything that is said, including dates and times, and names of anyone that witnessed the incident. Explain the next steps that you will have to take. If you have witnessed a harassment incident, it is tempting to take the harassed employee aside and ask if they want to make a complaint. However, you have a duty of care to all of your staff, and should follow company policy accordingly.

Bring in HR

Once you have a detailed account of the incident, you need to bring in HR as soon as possible. They can ensure that the following investigation and procedure complies with company policy and employment law. They will help you assess the seriousness of the situation to decide if it can be dealt with informally, or if a formal investigation needs to take place. The HR team is well-versed in all aspects of employment law, so will be able to advise and lead on any next steps. If your employer doesn’t have a dedicated HR department, contact your union representative or get in touch with Citizens Advice.

Deal With the Issue

If the person being harassed doesn’t want to lodge a formal complaint, it may instead be appropriate to create a supportive environment to allow the complainant to explain to the alleged harasser how their behaviour made them feel and to work with both parties to resolve the issue. You may feel it appropriate for the harasser to undergo some training, which could then be rolled out company-wide as a preventative measure.

If the incident does move forward to HR and into the realm of formal proceedings, evidence will need to be gathered from any possible witnesses, and a meeting will have to take place with the alleged perpetrator. Depending on the nature of the complaint, you may need to review the email accounts of those involved in the incident.

In some situations, it may be one person’s word against another’s. In that case, you will need to make a judgement call. Remember that differing accounts does not necessarily mean that one person is lying – it may be indicative of differing perceptions of the situation. Make sure you hear both accounts in person, with HR present, in the set up of a formal hearing.

As a manager or employer, you must take reasonable steps to make sure any issues are dealt with. Steps you may want to take in the event of an incident include:

  • Changing reporting lines or appraisal arrangements
  • Regular reviews to ensure that you have ample opportunities to check in with the person being harassed
  • Training and mentoring
  • In serious cases, termination of contract for the harasser

Preventative Measures

To prevent sexual harassment as much as you humanly can, make sure that all employees are aware of your company’s policies so they know what to do if it happens to or around them. Provide diversity training and survey staff regularly to help pick up any issues before they become something more serious, and make sure you act swiftly if there are signs of any issues. In performance appraisals or one-to-ones, ask if there are any other areas you can provide support or assistance in, and open the door to a conversation about workplace relationships. Your team will appreciate knowing that you’re ready to support them in all workplace matters; if you’re an open, respectful and empathetic leader, your team should follow your example.

To see what other ways you can promote an inclusive and unbiased workplace, read CMI’s Fixing the Broken Window report on gender diversity.

Image: Unsplash