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The Fawcett Society, a charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights at work, has published recommendations for employers to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.  Their report states that at least 40% of women have experienced workplace harassment, and that women who are marginalised for other reasons, such as race and disability, face an increased risk, and different forms of sexual harassment.

The Society also reports that nearly a quarter of women who had been sexually harassed said that the harassment had increased or escalated since working at home due to the pandemic, and that 68% of disabled women reported being sexually harassed at work, the same percentage as the proportion of LGBT workers who had experienced harassment in the workplace.  

The report blames the way that many employers respond to complaints, trying to minimise liability, for women facing retaliation and victimisation, and so choosing not to report at all.  

The Society’s response is to identify five key requirements to create a workplace that does not tolerate sexual harassment:

  • Organisation wide culture change, which addresses misogynistic norms and makes clear that sexual harassment is unacceptable.
  • Having a clear and detailed sexual harassment policy that is separate to a general harassment and bullying policy.  The policy should define sexual harassment, describe who it applies to, give guidance on how to report sexual harassment, outline the responsibilities of managers and staff, describe the complaint and investigation procedure, describe sanctions, forbid victimisation and commit to reviewing and evaluating the policy.
  • Tailored anti-sexual harassment training, which the report recognises would be only one component of the means to prevent sexual harassment.  Effective training would not only increase employees’ knowledge of the workplace policy, and change attitudes, but it would also actively reduce or prevent sexual harassment, a result which often does not occur.  
  • Creating multiple avenues for reporting sexual harassment.  This envisages giving the victim the choice of whether to pursue an informal or formal process, although a formal process may be more appropriate in serious cases.  The multiple avenue approach also refers to having multiple people who may be told about concerns.  
  • The way employers respond to reports.  The survey found that women rarely feel supported when they report their experiences, and harassers are rarely proportionately disciplined.  A thorough and sensitive investigation must be instigated if a formal complaint is raised, and all employees who make a report must be treated with respect and empathy.  A clear process should be outlined, and confidentiality maintained.  Ongoing support should be provided, both to the complainant and to the managers dealing with the matter.  A clear paper trail needs to be kept and specialist help obtained if necessary.  

The Fawcett Society and its partners intend to publish an employer toolkit next year, which should be very useful for employers struggling to tackle this difficult but important issue.  You can apply to receive a copy on the Society’s website: https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/forms/sexual-harassment-toolkit

Find out how we can help.  Our partner, Jon Dunkley, heads the Wollens specialist Employment Department.  Contact him today for an informal chat, without obligation on 01271 342268 or via email at [email protected].