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UK employers lag behind on sexual harassment policy

Five years after the #MeToo movement, this is the first year that more companies globally have published an anti-sexual harassment policy (53%) than not (47%) – but the UK is behind the curve.

Only 42% of mid and large-sized companies in the UK have an anti-sexual harassment policy, according to a new global study by gender data organisation Equileap. The study surveyed 3,895 public companies from 23 developed economies.

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Almost three quarters (73%) of Italian companies have sexual harassment policies, and nearly seven in ten of French (69%) and Canadian (68%) companies have them.

Diana Van Maasdijk, CEO of Equileap, told HR magazine that legislation is a fundamental step towards progress.

She said: “What we’ve seen in the past few years of doing this research is a strong correlation between legislation and actually taking the steps [to address gender equality].”

With mandatory gender pay gap reporting, the UK has one of the highest rate of pay gap publication in the world yet, unlike France, there is no legal obligation to publish an action plan to tackle pay inequality once a gap is identified.

Van Maasdijk added: “It’s too bad that companies seem to not want to do it unless they’re forced, but it’s clear to us that legislation helps.”

The UK government announced last year that employers will soon have a duty to prevent sexual harassment within the workplace.

Tilly Harries, barrister and HR support service leader at professional services firm PwC UK, told HR magazine: “The introduction of a new proactive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment means that, legally, a great deal more is going to be expected of employers in relation to preventing workplace harassment.”

Having a policy is a fundamental first step employers can take to meet their obligations, she said. Employers can set out clearly what is unacceptable, and promote a ‘speak-up’ culture by signposting reporting channels.

Harries added: “While virtual working is not immune to cases of sexual harassment, as we return to our workplaces, ensuring proactive steps have been taken to prevent sexual harassment should be even more of a priority for HR.”

While increased face to face contact and work-related social activity is a welcome change, Harries said, it brings an increased risk of inappropriate behaviour.

She said: “Detailed policies coupled with effective training and robust 'speak-up' reporting avenues will ensure that staff fully understand what is appropriate and how to seek support should they unfortunately encounter harassing behaviours.”