Insights

Nighat Sahi

Published 30 May 2024
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Sexual Harassment

And its implications in the workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is unfortunately still prevalent in the UK, as it is in many other countries. While exact numbers can be challenging to determine due to underreporting, surveys and studies provide some insights into the extent of the issue. However, laws coming into force in October 2024, will impose a new duty of care on employers to prevent sexual harassment. It’s therefore essential to take a proactive approach to tackling this.

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment statistics

According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents the majority of trade unions in the UK, around 52% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. And according to their 2019 ‘Sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace’ survey, 68% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people reported being sexually harassed at work.

Additionally, a survey conducted by the BBC in 2019 found that 40% of women and 18% of men reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviours at work. We are all aware of the #MeToo movement, this has helped create some progress in terms of accountability for sexual harassment at the larger institutions particularly in male-dominated industries and organisations.

Statistics are important and are key in assisting in highlighting that sexual harassment still remains a significant issue affecting a considerable portion of the workforce in the UK. It’s worth noting that these numbers likely underestimate the true prevalence of sexual harassment, as many incidents go unreported due to fear of retaliation, stigma, or a lack of confidence in the reporting process.

Efforts to address sexual harassment in the workplace include legislative measures, employer policies, awareness campaigns, and support services for victims. Despite these efforts, there is still much work to be done to create safer and more respectful work environments for all employees.

As an employer, it is very important to consider what policies, guidance and training you should provide to all employees, particularly, Directors, senior manager teams, Human Resources, Managers, etc.

What amounts to sexual discrimination in the workplace?

Sexual harassment covers a wide range of behaviours and broadly includes any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that makes you feel humiliated or intimidated or creates a hostile environment. That can include explicit comments or jokes, inappropriate touching, being called sexual names, sexual propositions, etc. 

The impact of sexual harassment can be very serious and can lead to anxiety, depression, fear and can affect someone’s ability to do their job.  

Anyone can be the victim of sexual harassment, and if you are being subjected to harassment then it’s important to keep a record of what is happening and report it to the appropriate person such as HR or your manager.

What does the law say?  

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination covered by the Equality Act 2010 which provides protection for:

  • employees and workers
  • contractors and self-employed people hired to personally do the work
  • job applicants

Many businesses may be unaware that in October 2023 legislation was passed to introduce measures to tighten the current laws and further prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, the significant change is now a mandatory duty. A possible defence would be available to employers who had taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent such acts taking place.  It is worth noting that this is a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment.

In October 2024, The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 will come into force and amend the Equality Act 2010 in two respects. The new provisions introduce a new duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees.

A claim for breach of the new duty will need to be part of a claim for sexual harassment (not a free-standing claim) but if the employer is found to have breached its duty to take reasonable steps to avoid the sexual harassment, the Employment Tribunal will be able to uplift compensation by up to 25%.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)  – Code of Practice: Sexual Harassment

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has now confirmed that it will be updating its existing Code of Practice and guidance to reflect the new provisions, although full details of this are still awaited. We will provide an update on this as soon as more information is available.

Tackling sexual harassment

Most employers should already have in place anti-harassment policies, awareness campaigns, and support services for victims. However, in light of the above, employers now need to review and improve all these to ensure that they are meeting the new proactive duty of care.

5 essential steps to eliminating sexual harassment

Analysing existing data

A good starting point is to review any data you hold in this area to identify any particular areas of concern. Alternatively, if you don’t have enough data, carry out a confidential staff survey, which is conducted on an annual basis and which covers not just any incidents of sexual harassment but also things like staff confidence in the reporting procedure.

Reviewing your anti-sexual harassment policy

Your anti-sexual harassment policy is clearly a linchpin document and should make it crystal clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. This document should also explain what amounts to harassment, who is protected, the procedure for reporting and the consequences for the perpetrator. This policy should also be regularly reviewed.

Developing your company culture

In addition to a clear written policy, it is essential to develop the right company culture, and this is the most complex and challenging area for many employers. It will require a combination of clear messaging from the top and appropriate training at different levels including for directors, senior management, Human Resources, managers, new employees, etc.

There is a wide variety of training available and what is appropriate will need to be tailored to suit your organisation but could include:

  • Unconscious Bias Training: This type of training helps participants recognise and address unconscious biases that may impact their decision-making processes and interactions with others.
  • Diversity Awareness Training: These programs raise awareness about different dimensions of diversity, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and age, and how they contribute to a more inclusive workplace.
  • Inclusive Leadership Training: This training focuses on equipping leaders with the skills and knowledge to create and sustain inclusive environments, including strategies for promoting diversity in hiring and decision-making processes.
  • Cultural Competency Training: These programs help individuals develop an understanding of different cultural perspectives and norms, enabling them to work effectively with people from diverse backgrounds.
  • Allyship Training: Allyship training teaches individuals how to actively support and advocate for marginalized groups, fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging.
  • Microaggressions Training: This type of training educates participants about microaggressions—subtle, often unintentional comments or behaviours that communicate hostility or bias—and how to address and prevent them in the workplace.
  • Intersectionality Training: Intersectionality training explores how various aspects of identity, such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, intersect and shape individuals’ experiences of discrimination and privilege.
  • Employee Resource Group (ERG) Training: ERG training helps organisations establish and support employee resource groups, which are communities of employees who share common identities or experiences and work together to promote diversity and inclusion within the organisation.

Once again, training should be an ongoing process that should be subject to regular reviews and done hand in hand with one to one reviews and exit interviews.

Refining your procedure

Ensure you have a clearly articulated reporting system and procedure. This may require specially trained members of staff who can deal with reporting with sensitivity and confidentiality. Have measures in place to ensure you can deal with any incidents quickly but bear in mind, in some cases, a criminal offence may have been committed and the police may be involved. You should also review and consider the use of Confidentiality Agreements and whether and when it is appropriate to use them.

Also consider the provision of counselling services, legal assistance and if necessary, language interpretation services or accommodation of disabilities.

Review your inclusion and diversity procedure and culture

Inclusion and diversity play a fundamental role in helping to reduce and eliminate sexual harassment. Your Inclusive policies should foster a culture of respect and tolerance and promote awareness and sensitivity to the experiences of all employees, including those who may be more vulnerable to harassment due to their identities.

Conclusion

Inclusion and diversity and eliminating sexual harassment are intrinsically linked. But whilst promoting a more diverse and inclusive workplace should help reduce the risk of sexual harassment, that on its own is not enough to tackle what remains a very real problem in the workplace. In order to meet the new duty of care, a much more proactive approach is now required.

If you would like advice and assistance in relation to any of the above matters, please get in touch with Nighat.

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