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Proactively preventing sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment is a subject that organisations hope to never have to deal with, but it has a worrying prevalence in businesses throughout the UK.

In fact, statistics paint a bleak reality, with 45% of women and 27% of men reported to have experienced unacceptable behaviour at work, according to the Government Equalities Office.

Of those women who reported harassment, 85% believe they weren’t taken seriously and the claim was not handled appropriately.

So what steps can be taken to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace in the first place, and how can organisations engage employees on this topic?

Read more:

Fawcett Society outlines how to prevent workplace sexual harassment

Whose job is it to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

McDonald's sexual harassment alleged by staff


Step one: Develop an effective anti-harassment policy

Just as there are policies for drugs and alcohol in the workplace, the need for an anti-harassment policy should also be at the top of the agenda, regardless of an organisation’s size or the industry in which it operates.

All colleagues need to be aware of the behaviour standards of the organisation and understand the potential consequences of  unacceptable behaviour.

The policy should clearly lay out the reporting and investigation process for those who experience any unwanted behaviour from colleagues or third parties. 


Step two: Engage your employees

Empower colleagues to speak up by raising awareness of your company’s zero-tolerance policy for unacceptable behaviour. Promote the importance of respect between employees, regardless of their seniority within the organisation.

No matter the industry or sector a business operates in, a culture must be developed where harassment is known to be unacceptable.


Step three: Assess and take steps to reduce risks in your workplace

Be proactive and transparent about tackling the issue. Set out the standards and look for ways to positively influence your culture.

You could conduct an anonymous survey inviting staff to submit their own experiences and perception of your workplace culture. 

It is also important to reflect on any incidents that have happened previously. Are there any learnings that can be acted on to prevent unacceptable behaviour from taking place in the future?

If applicable, the organisation’s anti-harassment policy should be updated to reflect these learnings.


Step four: Reporting

It’s essential that employees know how to report any unacceptable behaviour, even if they don’t have anything to report at that moment in time. They must be aware of how to do so if needed in the future – whether that’s for themselves or perhaps a colleague.

Organisations should also consider what the reporting process will look like — especially from an employee’s perspective — so it’s as straightforward and seamless as possible, whilst protecting them.


Step five: Training

Senior leaders should be trained on how to deal with complaints of harassment and how to recognise the signs in order to prevent it.

It’s key that any issues are dealt with quickly and effectively. All employees — regardless of seniority — must be made aware of the impact their own behaviour can have on others and what kind of behaviour could be seen as unacceptable and the best way to promote this is through dignity at work training.


Step six: Know what to do when a harassment complaint is made

You also need to ensure that the relevant people in your organisation are aware of how to properly manage any grievances, rather than be a rabbit in headlights.

Including this in your training should mean that those who have been equipped to handle complaints should do so fairly and sensitively.

They should also be clear with everyone involved what the process will look like and the timeframe in which they can expect to hear from their senior leadership team, including HR.


Step seven: Be aware of harassment from third parties

Unacceptable behaviour doesn’t just have to take place between colleagues, though it often does in the majority of cases. Customers, suppliers, or service providers could also behave in a way that is unacceptable towards employees.

While recent legislative efforts to make employers vicariously liable for a third party’s unacceptable behaviour have been watered down, senior members of staff should still be trained to spot this and act.

Third parties also need to be clear regarding the organisation’s zero-tolerance policy and how to report an incident should they need to.

Sexual harassment is an extremely serious workplace issue that demands immediate attention.

From small businesses to large enterprises, it is imperative that all organisations implement a zero-tolerance policy against such behaviour alongside creating an inclusive and supportive culture.


Michelle Hobson is HR services director at Moorepay