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One in ten retail workers experience sexual harassment

Employers must provide an anonymous HR service for retail workers to report harassment, experts say, after research finds that shop staff feel employers could do more

One in ten (11%) retail workers have experienced 'inappropriate touching of a sexual nature' in their current role, according to research by Foot Anstey.

Of those who've experienced harassment, over a third (36%) believe their employer could have done more to prevent it and 24% said their employer does not care about protecting them from inappropriate behaviour.

UK law firm Foot Anstey commissioned Survation to poll 1,330 retail workers. The research found that almost half (47%) have heard sexual, racist, homophobic or other offensive language while at work. Almost a third (31%) of men have experienced physically aggressive or violent behaviour, compared with 23% of women. The vast majority of aggression (78%) experienced reportedly came from customers.

Equal numbers of men and women reported harassment, with this figure standing at 11% for both genders, representing 319,000 retail workers across the UK.

Despite the worrying regularity of harassment and aggression experienced by staff, almost a quarter (22%) said that there is no anonymous HR service at their work through which they can raise concerns.

Respondents were also given the opportunity to share their experiences with researchers anonymously. One respondent commented: “One colleague made me sit on his lap once. And he was really close behind me. I could feel his warmth.”

Another said: "One particular colleague insists on touching people inappropriately. She is older and so everyone dismisses it as funny."

Patrick Howarth, head of retail and consumer law at Foot Anstey, said that these figures are not surprising given the sharp rise in employment tribunals over recent years. "Eye-catching as these figures are, I think I need to be honest and say they confirm the suspicions of anyone working in employment law. I hope they bring to life that quality training for managers in reputation-damaging issues is more important than ever," he said.

He added that most of this abuse appeared to be perpetrated by those in senior positions against junior staff: "Our survey shows the majority of sexual harassment comes from within the business. In employment tribunals the instigator is overwhelmingly [in most cases] more senior than the person making the complaint."

Howarth added: "Many managers are promoted on the basis of technical abilities and are not equipped with the leadership skills to deal with harassment – or even recognise it when they see it. That's no one's fault. The important thing is to change it."

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, said that while employers may not currently be liable for harassment by customers against staff, they should still be aware of their responsibilities here. “Although employers can be liable for harassment from their staff to their staff, this principle does not extend to third-party harassment, such as that from customers or clients," she said.

"That said, employers should bear in mind the significant impact that this form of treatment can have on their employees and that those affected could still bring a claim for constructive dismissal based on their employer’s inaction. I would also remind employers that the government is currently consulting on whether employers should be liable under equality law in these situations."

Palmer encouraged employers to implement an anonymous HR service where employees can report instances of harassment. “Employers must not underestimate the seriousness of this issue and [must] always [be] prepared to tackle it" she said.

"By allowing employees to report any unwanted conduct through an anonymous HR service, employers can encourage individuals to come forward who may not otherwise have done so and reassure their workforce that, if situations like this do occur, they will be listened to and have access to ongoing support. Taking this action can be crucial in encouraging the continued loyalty, retention and productivity of a workforce.”

Previous research by Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) found that 70% of women in retail have experienced sexual harassment at work.

This report said that the union would work with employers to train management on the issue. It stated: 'A distinguishing characteristic of harassment is the reluctance of those who experience it or witness it to come forward. An absence of complaints does not necessarily mean an absence of harassment.

'To address the underreporting of sexual harassment we will raise with employers the need for managers to be better trained and supported to respond to the issue and ensure joint agreements on the issue are fit for purpose.'