Sexual harassment in the workplace – what can employers do?

Written by Beth Gault Wednesday 27 October 2021
With sexual harassment often stemming from a culture that considers it “acceptable banter”, what can employers do to rid the workplace of this behaviour?
A handprint above the words stop harassment

Lucy* was in her twenties in her first job out of university when she first experienced workplace harassment. “There were so many incidents where I knew it wasn’t right at the time, but you just don’t say a thing. You just put up with it,” she says.

This colleague, who was 20 years her senior, ‘took a shine’ to Lucy when she arrived at the company in south London. He started to send her endless emails, hover around her desk and persistently ask her out for lunch. “It got to the point where it made me feel uncomfortable.”

Lucy made it clear to him that she had a boyfriend, but in response, the colleague said “it doesn’t matter”.

“I used to have to walk past his department to do my job, which I hated because he would turn around and stare. By the time I got back to my desk I had an email from him saying something like ‘you look gorgeous today’ or ‘wow’ in the subject heading. He just hadn’t taken the hint.”

Lucy did tell some colleagues but felt like she wasn’t being taken seriously. “I told two more senior male colleagues and they said ‘oh yeah, he’s a bit of a lech’, but then just used to tease me about it and joke. It was as if I should have taken it in my stride,” she says.

“Escalating it felt like a huge risk”

Lucy didn’t take the issue to HR for fear of receiving the same response. “I was embarrassed and I felt a bit ashamed, wondering what I might have done to cause this. You imagine all the things he would say to defend his actions if you ever brought it up, and you think: do I have a strong enough case?”

Lucy was also discouraged because she didn’t know what the process of a complaint would look like and what the consequences might be. Would she have to work in the same office as him still, would things actually change?

Sean* was similarly conflicted about whether to report an incident with a senior male colleague to HR. “He was married with a child and ostensibly straight, but at two consecutive work drinks events he grabbed my bum,” he says. “I didn’t report it because my girlfriend was also working in the business at the time and she had a very close – and occasionally turbulent – relationship with him. Escalating it felt like a huge risk.”

“If someone had said ‘I’ll support you, I’ll go with you’ or anything like that, maybe I would have gone to HR,” says Lucy. “But there was no talk about it in the office, no education in our workplace at all about what’s acceptable and what’s not. There was no encouragement from HR that if you’re experiencing any of these things then come to us. There was no conversation about sexual harassment at all,” says Lucy.

“You’re seeing about a fifth of actual incidents”

Workplace sexual harassment is unfortunately a common occurrence. At least 40% of women have experienced workplace harassment, according to a recent report from the Fawcett Society. And while statistics show that sexual harassment of women by men is most common, it’s important to remember that it can occur to and by people of any sex, gender or sexual orientation. A 2020 survey by the UK Government Equalities Office found that men were almost as likely as women to experience workplace sexual harassment.

But Andrew Bazeley, policy, insight and public affairs manager at the Fawcett Society, says the vast majority of sexual harassment in the workplace goes unreported. “That’s something that employers should be holding quite firmly in their minds,” he says. “The idea that you are at best seeing about a fifth in terms of reports of actual incidents of unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace.”

Read the Fawcett Society report

Better understand current research, learn about essential requirements necessary for your workplace and find resources to support change in your organisation.

Read the report

In July 2021, the UK government set out to tackle this by committing to legislation that puts a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment. That means there is now a regulatory need for employers to create a culture that minimises this behaviour and protects all employees from harassment.

The Fawcett Society’s hope is that this change in the law will spur organisations into doing the necessary work to prevent people from being harassed in the workplace.

“We primarily talk about it in terms of the harm that it causes to women, but it’s also harmful to an organisation trying to achieve its business aims,” says Andrew.

“When this is happening, it’s degrading to the [employees] and it stops them working properly, as you might imagine, so I'm hopeful employers will see that the law is changing and there are a set of actions they can take.”

Steps to make a change

In order to find out just how prevalent sexual harassment is in your organisation, Andrew recommends doing a ‘climate survey’ among employees to anonymously find out whether they’re experiencing any of this behaviour. “You don’t want to be looking at your levels of sexual harassment reports to determine whether or not you have a problem – that simply won’t tell you.”

Once an employer has discovered more about sexual harassment in their workplace, Andrew says there are five things they must be doing to create a wider culture that prevents it.

  1. Start by changing the culture through promoting more women to leadership positions and improving the equality, diversity and inclusion within the organisation.
  2. Change policies, including making a clear definition of what sexual harassment is in the workplace so people move away from it being only the more extreme forms of harassment. It also needs to set out what employers are doing to combat this culture.
  3. Anti-sexual harassment training. This should feature specific manager training as well as training for the entire organisation. Bystander training can also be valuable so people can report things they see rather than the onus being on the victim to report the incident.
  4. Encourage reporting. There needs to be multiple routes to report, both in an informal and formal way and the difference in outcomes should be known. These routes could be through phone lines, independent third parties or anonymous reporting.
  5. Respond to reports. Employers need to take these seriously, make it clear they will be investigated and there will be consequences if the report has been substantiated.

*not their real name

Read next: How to call out sexual harassment

If you have or are currently experiencing sexual harassment, find more advice on the ACAS website. CMI members can also access free emotional support and anonymous access to counselling on Kooth, a leading provider of digital mental health services. Simply set up an account to access the free resources.

Image: Shutterstock/WindVector

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.