Deborah Moon, HR Consultant, summarises the main findings of a new report on sexual harassment in the workplace and considers some of the issues arising for employers, particularly within a public sector context.

In recent weeks, there appears to have been a virtually continuous stream of reports and articles about women’s experiences in the workplace and the difficulties and challenges that many face. These have covered issues such as dress and appearance (women told looking good is “better for business”, women face greater “weight-based discrimination”), maternity and pregnancy discrimination, the difficulties faced by mothers in combining work and childcare responsibilities, the lack of career/workplace progression and the gender pay gap.

Perhaps one of the most shocking was that published by the TUC in association with the Everyday Sexism project regarding sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016. The report, Still Just a Bit of Banter? painted an alarming picture of the extent, nature and scope of the experiences of women in relation to this issue, highlighting the degree to which this remains a significant problem for organisations to address. Based on a survey of a sample of British women who are working or who have ever had a job and were happy to be surveyed about this topic, the report provides a range of statistical evidence and personal testimonies of those who have experienced some form of sexual harassment, illustrated by real-life examples of the various ways in which it occurs.

As well as demonstrating the extent to which this remains a serious and challenging workplace issue, it also highlights the degree of “under reporting” of incidences of sexual harassment and the reasons for this, as well as considering the impact on individuals who have been subject to such behaviour.

It concludes by making a number of recommendations, for Government, employers and trade unions, as well as providing further sources of information and support on this issue.

Commenting on the report, Dr Jane Pillinger, an independent researcher and social policy advisor, who provides policy advice for European and international organisations, and social partner bodies across Europe and internationally on social policy, gender equality, labour market issues and migration, said: “The TUC’s survey on sexual harassment is one of the biggest surveys carried out in Europe on women’s experiences of sexual harassment at work. The survey results show the enormity of this issue which is so often invisible and under-reported — it points to the need for changes in attitudes towards women and for comprehensive workplace policies to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.”

Introduction and background

In the foreword to the report, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, reflects that while sexual harassment in the workplace may be dismissed as just a joke, or even a compliment, it is, in fact, an “undermining, humiliating and sometimes terrifying” experience for those on the receiving end. The report indicates that while trade unions have practical experience of dealing with individual cases in the workplace, actual “evidence” in the form of quantitative data can be “hard to come by”, due to the lack of reporting by those who have experienced some form of sexual harassment, either to their employer and/or confiding in their trade union representative. The report and underlying research seeks to address this gap by providing more comprehensive evidence of the scale and nature of the issue, as well as the significant impact, both emotionally and professionally, this can have on individuals.

The report explains the methodology for the research: in January 2016, the TUC commissioned polling on experiences of workplace sexual harassment, using a sample of 1533 adult women in Great Britain who were happy to be asked about sexual harassment and had current or previous experience of being in paid work. This was followed by a TUC survey of union members in order to gather more qualitative data to complement the findings of the polling.

The polling questions focused on the types of incidents experienced rather than just asking respondents if they had been sexually harassed. The report explains this was because there is often a reluctance on the part of those who have experienced sexual harassment to label it as such. It refers to an Equality and Human Rights Commission literature review on workplace sexual harassment which found that: “Women seemed reluctant to extend the meaning of sexual harassment to their own experience, this was not because they failed to understand what constituted sexual harassment. Rather, it was because women had defined certain acts in terms of seriousness and therefore, did not define their own experience as serious enough, despite the fact that they clearly felt their experiences were important.”

As well as providing a range of statistical data/evidence, the report includes a number of personal testimonies, and provides numerous examples of the experiences of women in the workplace and the ways in which sexual harassment can occur. It considers those groups who may be particularly vulnerable to/affected by this type of behaviour and the different types of situations in which this can occur.

While the report reflects that “everyone and anyone can experience sexual harassment”, it is women who are more likely to experience sexual harassment than men — and the perpetrators of such behaviour are “overwhelmingly male”. The report focuses on the sexual harassment of women in the workplace, but acknowledges that the experiences of men are also important. Indeed, as the report states, the fact that men are less likely to experience sexual harassment may exacerbate their feelings of shame or embarrassment when it does happen.

What is sexual harassment?

HR professionals will, no doubt, be familiar with the definition of sexual harassment as contained in the Equality Act 2010, and the report sets this out, ie unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

The report explains that it focuses on sexual harassment, rather than other forms of discrimination and harassment, eg sex-based harassment, or harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation. However, it notes that in some cases the “delineation” between different types of harassment may not be clear, providing some examples of this, eg a lesbian woman subject to both sexual harassment and homophobic harassment at the same time and by the same perpetrator. HR professionals may well have practical experience of dealing with such types of cases.

The report also provides a reminder that a perpetrator’s claim that his or her comment or action was “meant in jest or as a compliment” is not a defence in a sexual harassment case. Neither does the harassment have to be directed at the person complaining about it. It provides an example of this, where the display of pornography or sexual comments directed at others may create a degrading, intimidating or hostile working environment for workers even if they are not the intended object of the comments. In addition, it is harassment to treat someone less favourably because he or she has rejected or submitted to unwanted sexual conduct. Again, HR professionals may well have practical experience of dealing with these types of workplace situations.

The report goes on to provide some examples of behaviour which could constitute sexual harassment, such as indecent or suggestive remarks, inappropriate questions or jokes, unwelcome or inappropriate physical contact, and requests or demands for sexual favours. It notes that sexual harassment can take place in a range of different locations, highlighting how social media and email are increasingly playing a part in this type of behaviour. Sexual harassment can take place in the person’s own workplace, another workplace (including, for example, a client or patient’s home), on a work activity such as an away day, or at a work-related social event such as a Christmas party.

The report also considers how sexual harassment may be perpetrated by different people including managers, potential employers, colleagues, clients or customers (the latter referred to as “third party harassment”). It includes, as an example of this, a care worker harassed by a client’s when on a home visit, a potential situation which local authority employers will, no doubt, be very aware of and alert to. Sexual harassment may also take place during the recruitment process, eg where a prospective employer demands sexual favours of the candidate in order for him or her to secure the role.

Measuring the extent of sexual harassment

As mentioned previously, measuring the extent of sexual harassment is difficult and the report reflects on the factors which contribute to this. Perceptions of sexual harassment vary from person to person, from country to country, and over time. Quantifying incidents of sexual harassment are further complicated by victims’ reluctance to share their experiences, even anonymously, or a reluctance to name what happened to them as sexual harassment.

The report refers to some surveys and studies which have sought to capture this type of data/evidence, eg by the law firm Slater Gordon, the End Violence Against Women, and, on a European-scale, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

It highlights the work of the Everyday Sexism project (with whom the report was undertaken in association with), which has “successfully highlighted the pervasiveness of sexism in society, including sexual harassment at work. By providing a forum for women to share their experiences and allowing for testimony to be given anonymously, the project has shone a light on women’s experiences of harassment and assault and the fact that many women perceive these offences as commonplace and inevitable.”

Who is affected by sexual harassment?

As indicated previously, sexual harassment can be experienced by both men and women but it is the latter who are most commonly subjected to it. The report identifies certain groups who are more likely to experience this type of behaviour, in particular, younger women and those with shorter periods of service and/or employed on more casual forms of contract.

It refers to research which has found that younger women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace and that younger mothers are significantly more likely to experience bullying and harassment at work during pregnancy compared to older mothers. In addition, young women are more likely to experience particular types of sexual harassment, for example, threatening and offensive advances on the internet.

Young women are also more likely to be on casual contracts, such as temporary, agency or zero-hours contracts and are likely to have had shorter tenure and be in more junior roles, all of which may be factors in sexual harassment (see next point, below). The report refers to Equal Opportunities Commission research in 2002 which found that in the majority of sexual harassment tribunal cases, the complainant had been working for his or her employer for less than one year. The report also refers to the “correlation” between “casualisation and sexual harassment” — the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (referred to above) notes that “Women with irregular or precarious employment contracts, which are common for many jobs in the services sector, are also more susceptible to sexual harassment.”

This comes at a time when there has been a reported increase in the numbers of people working on a zero-hours basis, as shown by figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published in September, covering the period April to June 2016. Women comprise more than half (55%) of those working on this basis. Those at the younger end of the age spectrum are also more likely to be on this type of contract — 36% of people on zero-hours contracts are aged 16–24.

The TUC report then considers the “inextricable link” between power and sexual harassment, either where the perpetrator is abusing a position of power by harassing someone he or she sees as less powerful, or where the perpetrator feels powerless and is using sexual harassment as a means to “disempower” the target of his or her harassment, thereby increasing his or her own power and status in the workplace. It notes that the “disempowering impact” of sexual harassment was a recurrent theme in union members’ responses to a TUC survey, with feelings of shame, humiliation and a sense of being undermined professionally all cited by respondents.

It also considers whether the incidence of sexual harassment varies significantly by ethnicity, noting that, while there is little empirical research on this, there is evidence that BME women’s experience of sexual harassment is often bound up with racial harassment. It notes that “many black feminist academics and activists have pointed to the double oppression faced by BME women and the ‘othering’ and eroticising of BME women’s bodies and sexuality”.

A further factor considered by the report is that relating to male-dominated workplaces and occupational segregation (the latter is also often referred to as one of the main contributors to the gender pay gap). It refers to European Commission research on sexual harassment in the workplace which found that women working in male-dominated workplaces are more likely to experience sexual harassment. It indicates that this is supported by anecdotal evidence from unions, eg workplaces where men are in positions of power and women are in more junior roles, and that many of the women who responded to the TUC survey alluded to all male offices or male-dominated sectors when describing their experiences. This may not come as too much of a surprise to HR professionals, but may be a point to consider in relation to certain occupations or professions in local Government and the wider public sector which are still male-dominated.

This section of the report concludes by reflecting on how women who have experienced sexual harassment often find that their experiences are “minimised” by colleagues and others. It notes that some women responding to the TUC survey expressed the fear that they would be seen as humourless and unable to “take a joke” if they challenged or reported the behaviour. It provides a number of quotes from the Everyday Sexism project which underline how hostile and undermining sexual harassment can be. The fact that it may take place in front of other colleagues can exacerbate the feelings of humiliation and shame that women report experiencing.

Research findings

The next section of the report sets out the detailed findings of the research, which are summarised below. The report itself sets out more detailed charts/diagrams on the findings, accompanied by practical examples and testimonials by respondents of their experiences.

Incidence of sexual harassment

Respondents were asked whether they had experienced a number of different types of unwanted sexual behaviour from a work colleague or client or in their workplace and, if so, whether this was in the last 12 months or longer ago. Further questions about the incidents invited respondents to focus on the most recent occurrence.

  • Hearing comments of a sexual nature about other women was the behaviour that most respondents reported (35%). Unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature and comments of a sexual nature about body or clothes were also reported by a large proportion of respondents (32% and 28% respectively).

  • Nearly one-quarter of respondents had experienced unwanted touching (such as a hand on the knee or lower back) and one-fifth had experienced unwanted sexual advances.

  • More than one in 10 women reported having experienced unwanted attempts to kiss them or unwanted touching of their breasts, buttocks or genitals in the workplace (as the report notes, such incidents could be defined as sexual assault under UK law).

  • One per cent of respondents overall reported that they had experienced a serious sexual assault or rape at work.

  • Just under one in 10 women reported seeing displays of pornographic material in the workplace. Although one respondent reported that, in her experience, the workplace culture was changing so that pornography was seen as less acceptable than in the past, many others reported they had seen pornography in the workplace in the past 12 months and that it had a negative impact on them.

  • For many women, sexual harassment was not a one-off incident, but something that had happened to them many times during their working lives.

Characteristics of respondents and their workplaces

The TUC polling provided data disaggregated by age, social grade, region, ethnicity, salary, industry, sector and contract type. Women of all ages, social grades, and ethnicities experienced sexual harassment in all sectors, industries and regions. However, the report notes that, in many cases, the sample size was not large enough to draw conclusions for specific groups of women or specific sectors.

The findings reaffirm the points made previously about young women and how they are more likely to experience sexual harassment — 63% of women aged 18–24 had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past 12 months, compared to an average of 52% among women of all ages.

Similarly, women who were not on permanent contracts, particularly those doing agency work or on zero-hours contracts, were also found to “stand out” as a group more likely to experience certain types of harassment and less likely to report it. However, the report again notes that the sample size of women on specific types of contract was too small to draw any conclusions from these findings.

The proportion of BME women reporting that they had experienced any form of sexual harassment was not any different to the average (52%).

Characteristics of perpetrators

The report then goes on to consider the various characteristics of the perpetrators of sexual harassment, as found by the survey:

  • in nine out of 10 cases the perpetrator was a man

  • 54% of respondents reported the perpetrator was a colleague

  • 17% of respondents reported the perpetrator was their direct manager or someone else with direct authority over them

  • 7% reported the perpetrator was a customer or client (third party harassment), although the report notes there was some variation across sectors, eg 9% of women in medical and health services, and also by age, with younger women more likely to be harassed by a third party.

The report notes the provision previously included within the Equality Act which placed a duty on employers to protect employees from third party harassment but which was repealed in 2013 (see also under Recommendations, below). It suggests that where the harassment is perpetrated by a client or customer, the person experiencing the harassment may feel it is even harder to take action and that he or she has less protection from his or her employer.

Location

The report then looks at where the harassment took place.

  • The vast majority (81%) reported it had taken place on work premises.

  • 14% reported it had taken place at a work-related social event, eg a Christmas party.

  • 5% reported it had taken place in another location for work, eg a conference, with a similar proportion reporting it had occurred online, by email or on social media.

Again in keeping with other findings, younger women (aged 18–24) were significantly more likely to report experiencing sexual harassment on their way to and from work than other women (11% compared to 3% of all women responding). Younger women were also twice as likely to report that the sexual harassment was carried out through phone or text message.

Reporting harassment

As indicated previously, the survey indicated that sexual harassment is “massively underreported” — four in five women did not report the sexual harassment to their employer. The report reflects that “perceptions of what is normal and acceptable may influence decisions about reporting harassment.” For example, sexual harassment may be considered to be so widespread and commonplace that it appears “hopeless trying to challenge it”.

Of the minority who did report the unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer, very few saw a positive outcome. Nearly three-quarters (70%) reported that there was no change and 16% said there were treated worse as a result. The report notes that several women providing anonymous testimony reported feeling let down by their employer’s failure to take action when they reported sexual harassment.

Respondents to the survey were also asked about reasons for not reporting the behaviour (there could be more than one reason for this):

  • 28% thought there would be a negative impact on their working relationships

  • 24% said they did not think they would be believed or taken seriously

  • 20% said they were too embarrassed to report it

  • 15% feared a negative impact on their career

  • 12% said they did not know how to report it

  • 9% were unaware they could report it

  • 8% thought they would be blamed if they reported it to their employer.

The report notes that while very few of the women polled had reported the behaviour to their employer (47% had done nothing), many had confided in other people. Twenty per cent had confided in a friend or colleague in the workplace and 14% had confided in friends, family or a partner outside of work. Only 3% had reported the incident to HR, a statistic which will no doubt be of concern to HR professionals reading this article.

Interestingly, very few women (only one per cent) had reported the incident to a union rep — the report notes that this will be of “particular concern to trade unions who campaign on sexual harassment and train reps on dealing with these situations”. However, it suggests that those groups within the polling sample more likely to report certain types of harassment, ie younger women, women in “more precarious” work, are also the groups of women least likely to be trade union members. It is therefore possible that many of the women who responded that they did not report the harassment to a union rep were not union members or were working in a workplace where no union was present (although this latter situation may be less likely in the public sector, where trade union recognition is more widespread than in other sectors).

Impact

The final part of this section of the report considers the serious professional, financial, and psychological impact of sexual harassment, including:

  • 39% said it made them feel embarrassed

  • 21% said they avoided certain work situations as a result

  • 15% reported they felt less confident at work

  • 9% said it had a negative impact on their mental health and 3% on their physical health

  • 7% had wanted to leave their job as a result but had been unable to do so due to financial or other factors, while 6% did actually leave their job.

The report also notes that, while the sample size of women on zero-hours contracts, fixed-term contracts and agency workers was too small to draw definite conclusions in relation to the question of wanting to leave the job but being constrained by financial or other factors, TUC research into the impact of “casualisation” on women has highlighted “the sense of vulnerability associated with the erosion of job security and a fear of taking action against a colleague or an employer because of possible ramifications in terms of pay and shifts.”

Recommendations

The report concludes with a number of recommendations for Government, for employers and for trade unions.

Recommendations for Government

Abolition of employment tribunal fees

The report refers to the introduction of employment tribunal fees in 2013, suggesting this has created an “often insurmountable hurdle for women wishing to pursue a claim of sexual harassment.” It notes there was a reduction of 76% in the number of sex discrimination claims between 2012/13 (before fees were introduced) and 2014/15 (the report explains that it is not possible to determine the number of sexual harassment claims as sexual harassment is under the jurisdiction of sex discrimination). These figures are in sharp contrast to the number of survey respondents who stated they had been the subject of some form of sexual harassment.

The report notes that women who are trade union members may be able to rely on their union to meet the fee required to pursue a claim but that many who are not may find they are “priced out of justice”. It also suggests that the “impetus” for employers to tackle discrimination in the workplace may be “diminished” if they consider there is little likelihood of victims of discrimination pursing a tribunal claim.

The latest employment tribunal statistics published by the Ministry of Justice for the period April to June 2016 indicate a continuing overall downward trend in the number of claims being made since the introduction of the fees regime in 2013 and commentators continue to express concerns about their apparent impact on “access to justice”. Two Government reviews have been looking at this and other related issues — a Ministry of Justice review of employment tribunal fees and the effectiveness of the fee remissions scheme and a separate House of Commons Justice Select Committee inquiry into fees and charges in courts and tribunals. In addition, the trade union UNISON has mounted a (so far, unsuccessful) legal challenge to the introduction of employment tribunal fees. Permission has been given to UNISON to take its case to the Supreme Court and it is expected to be heard in early December.

The Justice Committee published a report on the outcome of its inquiry in June. The Committee found that the introduction of fees had led to an undisputed and precipitate drop in the number of employment tribunal cases. It heard a considerable amount of evidence that, far from encouraging early conciliation and resolution of disputes, fees were having precisely the opposite effect, because there was no incentive for an employer to settle cases where the claimant might have difficulty raising the fee (a similar point to that made in the TUC report). It considered that the timing and scale of the reduction in claims in the period immediately following the introduction of fees could leave no doubt that the clear majority of the decline was due to these fees, concluding that their introduction has had an unacceptable impact on access to justice for meritorious claims.

The Committee also criticised the Government’s failure to publish its separate post-implementation review (originally intended to be completed by the end of 2015), and recommended that it should publish without delay the factual information collated as part of this review. It also recommended that:

  • the level of fees charged for bringing employment tribunal cases should be substantially reduced

  • the type A/type B distinction in relation to the type of claims and level of fee charged should be replaced, either by a single fee, by a three-tier fee structure, or by a fee proportionate to the amount claimed, with the fee waived if the amount claimed is below an identified level

  • fee remission thresholds should be increased and the corresponding process simplified

  • special consideration should be given to the position of women alleging maternity or pregnancy discrimination, with the three-month time limit for bringing such a claim reviewed.

The Committee recognised that its recommendations would have cost implications, although noted that an increase in the number of legitimate claims would bring in additional fee income. In addition, if there were a choice between income from fees and preservation of access to justice, the Committee’s view was that the latter must take priority as a matter of public policy.

It remains to be seen whether these recommendations and/or the outcome of the UNISON case will ultimately have any effect in changing the current policy on this issue.

Third-party harassment

As shown by the findings from the TUC research, third parties, eg clients, patients, and customers, are among the perpetrators of sexual harassment, with women working in certain sectors, including care and healthcare, particularly vulnerable to this. This highlights the need for employers to have appropriate arrangements in place to ensure adequate protection for employees in public-facing roles, for example, making clear to customers and clients the organisation’s policy that unacceptable or inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated, encouraging reporting of such incidents and taking appropriate action, and undertaking risk assessments for particular work activities such as home visits.

The report recommends the reinstatement of the previously repealed legislation, which placed a duty on employers to act where an employee is being harassed by a third party, which, it considers, would be “an important step in tackling workplace sexual harassment.” However, even without the reinstatement of that specific measure, it is possible that an employer could still be held liable for third-party harassment, under the general harassment provisions in the Equality Act, a further “incentive” to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to prevent and deter all forms of harassment, including sexual harassment.

Reinstate employment tribunals’ power to make wider recommendations

HR professionals may recall that the Equality Act previously contained a provision which gave employment tribunals the power to make wider recommendations, ie relating to the wider workforce, not just the individual claimant, in successful discrimination cases. This power was removed by the Deregulation Act 2015. The report recommends that this power be reinstated, suggesting that this would be of great benefit, particularly in relation to workplaces where “a culture of bullying and harassment has been allowed to flourish or where there are systemic failures of the organisation to respond adequately to complaints of harassment”.

Reinstate the statutory equality questionnaire

The statutory equality questionnaire was another provision previously contained in the Equality Act — this allowed potential claimants to ask questions of the alleged discriminator before submitting a tribunal claim, enabling them to gather information at an early stage and determine whether they had a case or not. However, the questionnaire procedure was removed in 2014.

The report recommends the questionnaire be reintroduced.

Recognition and facility time for union reps

The report refers to the role of trade union reps in helping deal with sexual harassment issues and that, in order to do so, they need time off for training and to provide support to members. It recommends that statutory rights and facility time for trade union equality reps is needed to enable them to carry out this type of role.

The provision of facility time for trade union representatives within the public sector has been under increasing scrutiny, for example, the requirement placed on local authorities under the Local Government Transparency Code to publish certain information about this, the provision in the Trade Union Act 2016 requiring employers in the public sector to publish information on facility time, and the possibility of further regulation that would enable Ministers to impose a “cap” on a particular employer if the amount and cost of facility time was a cause for concern.

Extend full range of statutory employment rights to all workers, regardless of employment status or type of contract

The report refers to the “vulnerability of women in precarious work” — the research indicates they are less likely to report harassment and feel less able to leave their job to get away from such behaviour. The report recommends that the law on employment status and continuity of employment is reformed so that zero-hours, casual and agency workers are afforded the “full range of statutory employment rights”, including protection from unfair dismissal.

On a similar theme, a recent parliamentary report by the Women and Equalities Committee highlighted the increase in the number of pregnant women and mothers reporting discrimination and poor treatment at work. The report Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination called for better protection for pregnant workers, with recommendations to ensure a safe working environment for new and expectant mothers and to prevent discrimination, including more rights for casual, agency and zero-hour staff who have served a period of continuous employment. The Committee also recommended extending the time limit for bringing a pregnancy or maternity related discrimination claim to six months and joined the Justice Committee (see above) in calling for a “substantial reduction” in tribunal fees for discrimination cases.

The Committee found that the Government’s approach lacked “urgency and bite” and that there was a need for it to set out a detailed plan outlining the specific actions it will take to tackle this “unacceptable level of discrimination”, which should be “underpinned by concrete targets and changes to laws and protections to increase compliance by employers to improve women’s lives”.

As can be seen from the above, the TUC recommendations for Government primarily relate to legislative changes and the reinstatement of previously repealed provisions (although these provisions have broader relevance and are not solely concerned with, or focused on, sexual harassment). However, at the present time, it would seem unlikely that these recommendations will be put into effect.

Recommendations for employers

Decent jobs

On a similar theme to the last recommendation for Government, above, the report recommends that employers should only use temporary, zero-hours and casual contracts and agency workers in response to “genuine peaks and troughs in demand or to match short-term skill needs”.

Notwithstanding the concerns expressed, these types of contract and working arrangements, when used appropriately and responsibly, can provide both employers and employees with desired and valued levels of flexibility, meeting both service/business and individual/personal needs and circumstances. However, it is clearly important to ensure that such workers are treated appropriately and are not more vulnerable to unacceptable behaviour due to their employment status.

Training

The report recommends that HR and all levels of management receive training on sexual harassment and how to respond to complaints. It suggests that in some workplaces, training for all staff may be appropriate.

Clear policies

The report recommends that employers have a “zero tolerance” approach to sexual harassment, with appropriate policies and reporting procedures which reflect and support that, and which are informed by input from trade union reps. It highlights the importance of ensuring that all employees are made aware of these policies and of their rights and responsibilities regarding workplace sexual harassment, including those on zero-hours or casual contracts, agency workers and contractors who may be employed by another organisation.

Implementation and enforcement of policies

The report reflects on its research findings in relation to employers who fail to act when sexual harassment is reported (or where the harassment worsens after it is reported). It recommends that employers pay “particular attention” to grievance procedures and how complaints of sexual harassment are dealt with and that they ensure employees are protected from experiencing “adverse outcomes” such as moving the complainant to a different department, or disbelieving or victimising them.

Recommendations for trade unions

As well as Government and employers, the report also makes some recommendations for trade unions, in relation to:

  • workplace campaigns and awareness raising (as noted previously, the research found that only one per cent of respondents had told a trade union rep about the incident, indicating there is a need to publicise this issue and the support trade unions can provide more effectively)

  • negotiating workplace policies (which would align with the recommendation for employers on this issue, as noted above)

  • training (again, aligning with the training recommendation for employers). Indeed, it may be that joint training, ie employer and trade union, may be an appropriate approach and one that some organisations may find helpful.

Conclusions

It is a matter of some considerable concern that so many women have experienced sexual harassment at work — the report demonstrates that a reliance on legislation is not sufficient to eradicate this type of unacceptable behaviour and, despite the statutory “protections”, discriminatory attitudes and practices persist in many workplaces. Employers need to promote and encourage a supportive and inclusive workplace culture, which reflects appropriate values and behaviours, and is based on dignity and respect at all levels. Employees must be made aware and regularly reminded of the standards of acceptable behaviour and employers must take appropriate action when staff fail to meet these. The research findings which suggest that sexual harassment has become “normalised” in many workplace environments and that many women feel they have to put up with it/have come to expect it is clearly alarming.

Employers must also ensure that appropriate and readily accessible reporting procedures are in place, so that employees who may experience this type of harassment (or, indeed, any form of harassment) know how and to whom to report this. Employers should also seek to build trust and confidence among employees, ensuring complaints are taken seriously and not “turn a blind eye” when issues are raised with them, however difficult or challenging these may be.

This should be supported by guidance and training, working in partnership with the trade unions, where appropriate. The further information and support set out at the end of the TUC report may also provide employers with valuable resources to assist them with this. Employers should also seek to develop employees’ confidence so that they feel able to challenge unwanted and inappropriate behaviours and/or know who they can talk to in confidence to support and assist them in seeking to stop it. Again, trade unions can provide a helpful role as part of this type of support network.

Many, if not all, local government and other public sector employers are likely to have such arrangements in place but can they be confident that actual practice reflects these? The report suggests that there is still some way to go to ensure that all are treated with dignity and respect in the workplace — HR has an important role in helping achieve this ambition.

Bibliography

Still Just a Bit of Banter?

The Everyday Sexism Project provides information about legal rights, reporting options and available support for women experiencing workplace sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination and abuse. This can be found at www.shoutingback.org.uk.

The House of Commons Justice Committee report is available at www.publications.parliament.uk.

House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination available at www.publications.parliament.uk.

Deborah Moon is a Consultant in Human Resources and is a regular contributor to Croner-i HR for Local Government. Croner-i HR for Local Government is an online employment law and practice reference source designed specifically for HR managers and their teams in local government.

Last reviewed 10 October 2016