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Police vow to "root out" sexual harassment among staff

Research reveals staff face high levels of incidents such as leering, sexual gestures and inappropriate touching

Police chiefs have pledged to tackle the sexual harassment of staff working for forces in England, Wales and Scotland after a report by UNISON, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of Surrey revealed incidents of inappropriate leering, sexual gestures and being pressured to have sex.

The survey of 1,776 police staff across England, Wales and Scotland, such as clerks and community support officers not police officers, found that 4% had been pressured to have sex with colleagues and 8% had been told that sexual favours could result in preferential treatment.

Almost half (49%) the staff questioned had heard sexualised jokes being told repeatedly at work, while one in five (19%) had received a sexually-explicit email or text from a colleague.

The research also revealed that a third (33%) had faced intrusive questioning about their private lives, more than a fifth (21%) experienced inappropriate staring or leering, and almost one in five (18%) had been touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable.

Eighteen per cent had seen colleagues make sexual gestures at work, while 12% had witnessed or been the subject of unwelcome touching, kissing or hugging.

The researchers also found that the more serious the harassment the less likely the affected staff member was to report it. Nearly two in five (39%) respondents said keeping quiet was easier than complaining, and more than a third (37%) said they felt nothing would be done if they did complain.

According to 34% of staff a gossiping culture at work meant they didn’t believe the matter would be kept confidential, while 32% felt they would not be taken seriously.

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for professional ethics and chief constable of Gwent police, Julian Williams said that the findings revealed “outdated and unacceptable behaviour” in the police force.

“The UNISON and LSE research into sexual harassment among police staff is important. It shines a light on policing and finds some outdated and unacceptable behaviour that must be rooted out," he said.

“This behaviour falls short of the high standards set in the Code of Ethics, which each member of the policing profession is expected to uphold.”

Williams added that while the police had put plans in place to tackle the problem, more could be done.

“We invited UNISON and the LSE to speak to all chief constables about their findings in July. There is already good practice in forces with staff surveys to identify the level of unreported sexual harassment, training and campaigns, but we need to do more," he said.

“We have committed to developing a comprehensive action plan by October that addresses the range of harassment found. Some of the behaviour described is predatory and requires the strongest response from police; with individuals removed from the service.

“Other behaviours like the repeated telling of sexualised jokes may not be malicious in intent but are misguided and damaging, and our focus will be on finding effective ways of challenging them.”

Wanda Wyporska, executive director of The Equality Trust, said that HR working with unions can help stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace.

"Despite much more awareness and the #MeToo movement, we are still seeing a society in which harassment of women is rampant. We must remember that this is about power and it reflects the low position of women in many sectors. HR, working with trade unions, can play an influential role in creating a zero-tolerance workplace where women feel safe and able to report harassment without fears of reprisals, damage to their careers, or disbelief."

She added that while policies are important sexual harassment is a systemic problem.

"Strong, active and visible adherence to robust policies is the stepping-stone on which to create a culture of respect. However, sexual harassment is a symptom of the inequality women face in the workplace. A long-term solution is more equality of pay, progression and position in workplaces and greater equality across society."

Providing outside lines for women to seek help are also effective, added Sue Evans, strategic HR and OD consultant at Staffordshire County Council.

"HR has a clear role in challenging harassment of any kind. It has been proven that organisations that provide good channels, outside the line, for people to raise concerns and who support and take complaints seriously are better places to work," she said.

"Setting values around respect and, more importantly, embedding them and challenging inappropriate behaviour is key. HR has a responsibility to lead this."