Everybody has the right to feel safe at work, and to be treated with dignity and respect.
Unfortunately, this is not happening. Parliamentary publications suggest that sexual harassment is still commonplace in many UK workplaces.
To compound the issue, the Women and Equalities Committee highlighted a stark “lack of awareness at the most senior levels of employers” concerning the extent of sexual harassment in their organisation.
If not dealt with correctly, sexual harassment can take a devastating toll on employee wellbeing and performance.
Champion Health have created this guide to provide information on how to stop sexual harassment in the workplace and create a workplace environment in which women can feel safe and comfortable.
How common is sexual harassment in the workplace?
Sexual harassment in the workplace is far more common than you might think. Although it can happen to anyone, the vast majority of victims are women.
A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed that 75% of women are sexually harassed at some point during their career.
Sexual harassment is even more prevalent for women with disabilities, from black and ethnic minority backgrounds or who are part of the LGBT community.
Sexual harassment at work statistics
The statistics surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace tell a story far beyond just the incidences of harassment.
A report called “Still just a bit of banter?” revealed some alarming statistics concerning what was happening to those who were harassed.
Of the women who were sexually harassed, 80% didn’t report it.
Of the women who reported the harassment to their employer, 70% experienced no change having done so.
These statistics show that the problem is not just that harassment is happening, but also that it’s not being dealt with properly by organisations.
Then there are the statistics surrounding the effects of the harassment on the victim. The same research found that 39% of women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace felt embarrassed by the incident and 15% of these women felt less confident at work as a result of being harassed.
Feelings like this can lead women leaving their job because of the harassment they’ve faced. A report by Deloitte Australia revealed that staff turnover due to sexual harassment represented 32% of the total cost of sexual harassment.
The mental health effects from sexual harassment can even be fatal. The British Medical Journal reported that employees who suffer sexual harassment at work have a higher risk of death by suicide.
What is sexual harassment at work?
Sexual harassment is defined as any sexual behaviour or conduct that is unwanted, offensive, and that makes someone feel uncomfortable, intimidated, humiliated or scared.
It is a subjective experience. It is the impact that it has on an individual, as opposed to the intent of the behaviour, that matters.
The conduct doesn’t need to be sexually motivated, just sexual in its nature.
The harassment can also take place in many different scenarios. It does not have to take place face to face within an office setting. It is still harassment if an incident happens virtually, after-hours or in a non-office setting.
Sexual harassment at work examples
Sexual harassment at work can take many different forms.
There is verbal harassment, which includes: telling sexually offensive jokes; asking questions about someone’s sex life; making sexual comments or jokes about someone’s sexual orientation or gender reassignment and flirting or making remarks about somebody’s clothing or appearance.
There is physical harassment, which includes unwanted kissing, touching or contact.
Other forms of harassment include: displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual content; explicitly or implicitly making conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favours; and pressuring someone to go on a date with you.
Sometimes, a person may make a passing remark or make physical contact without intending to intimidate or humiliate someone, but ultimately, sexual harassment is determined by how the person receiving the act feels. This is why it always essential to listen to and treat all allegations of sexual harassment seriously.
For further information on what constitutes sexual harassment, you could watch the BBC’s social experiment: Is This Sexual Harassment?, which explores this topic brilliantly.
Why don’t victims report sexual harassment?
There are a number of reasons why victims of sexual harassment don’t report their experience, as indicated in research by the Trade Unions Congress and Everyday Sexism Project.
Among the most common reasons cited by victims were that they feared a negative impact on their working relationships (28%), they did not believe they would be taken seriously (24%) and they were too embarrassed to report the unwanted sexual advances to their employer (20%).
Other responses included:
- They feared retaliation from the harasser
- They feared they wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously
- They didn’t want to be seen as “unable to take a joke”
- They didn’t believe anything would change
- They didn’t know who to report the sexual harassment to
Where can you report it?
If you wish to report a case of sexual harassment in the workplace, the first thing you should do is consult your workplace policy. It should outline clear policies and procedures for dealing with sexual harassment, usually in the anti-bullying and harassment policy. Consult these policies to determine your next steps.
If you feel able, you could raise the issue with the harasser, but only if you feel comfortable doing so. If this is not the case, then the next step is to report the incident to the relevant team.
Reporting the incident can feel extremely daunting, but your company should have processes in place to keep you safe. Your complaint should also be listened to and taken seriously. You should not be at a disadvantage for raising a sexual harassment complaint, as this would be victimisation.
If you need to, you can also access support outside of your organisation. Thrive, Rights of Women and Victim Support all provide excellent services to support people who are dealing with sexual harassment.
If your complaint isn’t taken seriously by your workplace or you are treated unfairly after your complaint, it may be time to seek advice on your legal rights. In some circumstances, you may want to seek legal assistance early in the process, as solicitors will often be willing to support you throughout the grievance and investigation process.
You may even have to consider criminal actions. Some incidents of sexual harassment will be illegal. If you’re in danger, you should call 999 or report any incidents to the police.
How to stop sexual harassment at work
Stopping sexual harassment is not just the responsibility of victims, or the organisation.
In order to drive positive change, everyone has to a display zero tolerance attitude towards sexual harassment in the workplace. If you spot sexual harassment happening in your workplace, consider the following points:
1. Trust yourself and trust your judgement
Sexual harassers often try to hide behind phrases like “it’s just a bit of banter” but trust your own instincts.
If you think that any comment, behaviour or communication is harassment, it probably is!
2. Speak up
This is potentially the most difficult part of reporting sexual harassment, but it’s so important.
Sexual harassment will only be stamped out if all employees recognise and interrupt harassing behaviours. If you see someone being harassed, or experience it yourself, speak up.
Look at your company’s anti-bullying and harassment policy, and carry out the relevant steps to escalate the issues if you see harassment inside or outside the workplace.
4. Be thoughtful
If you see sexual harassment happening, it’s very easy to turn your back, and decide it’s not your problem.
But what you do and say matters. It is everybody’s responsibility, including yours, to do all they can to help to create a fair, safe and respectful work culture free from sexual harassment.
How organisations can help
Champion Health have developed the ACT framework, to provide an overview of the steps companies can take to stamp out sexual harassment within their organisations.
A – Awareness
All employees should know exactly what sexual harassment is, and the behaviours that constitute it.
It should also be clear to them how incidents of sexual harassment will be dealt with. It’s crucial that there are no grey areas.
C – Company policy
Company policies must make the company’s stance on sexual harassment clear, usually in the anti-harassment and bullying policy.
They should also clearly outline the steps which employees should take if they want to raise a grievance. Procedures for dealing with incidences of sexual harassment should be easy and efficient.
T – Training
Every single member of staff should receive sexual harassment training – this includes board members and managers.
They should all know what sexual harassment in the workplace looks like, what to do if they experience it and how to handle any complaints of harassment.
Senior managers or HR should be trained on dealing with any sexual harassment issues that arise.
It’s time to take action
Sexual harassment in the workplace is not going to go away on its own.
The time to act is now.
If you’re a leader, that action could involve reviewing your company’s sexual harassment policies, organising a sexual harassment training day, or distributing a sexual harassment resource.
As an employee, the action could involve educating yourself on what sexual harassment is, or calling out sexual harassment when you see it.
Whatever it is, any action taken is a step in the right direction.
A step towards making sure that every single employee feels safe and secure at work.