Formal approaches aren't always the answer to sexual harassment

When it comes to sexual harassment allegations businesses are slow to embrace restorative solutions

In a bid to tackle the rising tide of sexual harassment at work the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) called on employers to crack down on ‘banter ‘at work.

Chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath has contacted the heads of 400 top UK companies directly, urging them to do more to stamp harassment out and suggesting it is time for a dramatic shift in workplace culture.

The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is complex and is rooted in wider inequality and the power imbalance in society. One of the key issues fuelling the problem, however, is what seems to be a widespread inability in engage in open respectful dialogue at work.

Thanks to a growing reliance on technology to communicate, coupled with increasing levels of incivility in corporate, political and public life, we seem to have forgotten how to communicate constructively and compassionately with our colleagues.

People have genuinely become unsure about what appropriate behaviour and conversation looks like. Some forms of behaviour are clearly unacceptable, but there are also many grey areas.

At what point does the kind of affectionate joking that happens between colleagues turn into innuendo that makes people feel uncomfortable? Is it OK for a man to compliment a female colleague on their dress or a new haircut? If someone is visibly upset is it only human to respond by putting an arm around their shoulder, or could that be construed as inappropriate?

This uncertainty is affecting the way people interact with each other at work. Atmospheres are becoming tense and constrained. No-one knows quite what to do or how to behave any more. Because people don’t know how to react, in many cases they are now over-reacting and adding a layer of awkwardness to everyday interactions.

What needs to happen?

Firstly, HR needs to support managers by equipping them with the courage, competence and confidence to deal with difficult issues by facilitating healthy open dialogue in their teams.

It is all too easy to feel a bit uncomfortable about the kind of behaviour or comments you are witnessing and turn a blind eye. Managers cannot be bystanders. They need to spot issues at an early stage, intervene and create a safe space where their people can discuss issues frankly and respectfully, before a situation escalates.

HR also needs to redefine the way it approaches resolving conflict, of all kinds. When it comes to sexual harassment organisations should make full use of the range of remedies available, including formal procedures. Robust policies, which are clearly communicated to managers and staff across the business, are important.

But an over-reliance on these formal approaches is not serving organisations well. Disciplinary and grievance and bullying and harassment policies often end up making the situation worse.

Parties are plunged into unpleasant, stressful and adversarial situations where the chance of ever restoring any kind of working relationship is slim. Both victims and perpetrators end up feeling increasingly angry, resentful, unheard and unfairly treated.

There are other more collaborative constructive ways of approaching the problem – professionally-facilitated ‘restorative’ conversations, which give both parties the opportunity to discussed alleged inappropriate behaviour in a calm and respectful environment – to name just one.

Asking a victim of alleged sexual harassment to sit across the table and talk it out with the perpetrator may seem counter-intuitive. There will be situations where this isn’t appropriate, or when either or both of the parties are not willing to take part.

People are, however, often more willing than you might suppose to engage in dialogue. If you ask victims of sexual harassment what they want, their answer is often that they want the behaviour to stop and to feel they have a voice. They want the perpetrator to understand how the behaviour has made them feel, to acknowledge the impact, and to apologise.

We know these approaches work, but organisations are often slow to embrace them for fear it will be perceived they have let the perpetrator ‘off the hook’.

The very opposite is true. Opening up face-to-face dialogue in a managed safe environment can be a cathartic process that allows victims to be heard, gives perpetrators the opportunity to reflect on the impact of their behaviour, and can lead to the lasting resilient relationships that organisations need their people to have.

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group