Time to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace
12th February, 2020
#MeToo movement has shown that workplace sexual harassment remains a pervasive
problem. From hospitality and the law to
politics and entertainment, many people still experience significant negative
effects of harassment and real barriers in trying to report it.
at work of any type is a destructive experience. It harms people’s mental and physical health,
with consequences for both their personal and working life, and has a negative
impact on workplace culture and productivity.
why the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is urging the Government to
legislate to make it a requirement for employers to take preventative steps to
EHRC is urging the Government to legislate to make it a requirement for all
employers to take preventative steps to address workplace harassment, to
introduce a statutory code of practice, and reinstate the third-party
harassment provisions of the Equality Act 2010.
How big a problem is workplace
can be perpetrated or experienced by both men and women, straight or LGBT, but we
know that women are most often the targets and men the perpetrators.
Harassment in the
workplace largely reflects gender power imbalances that result in barriers and inequalities
faced by women at work and in their everyday life.
report into sexual harassment uncovered the shocking and stark
reality of people whose careers, wellbeing and health have been harmed by
corrosive cultures that silence individuals and normalise harassment. We also found a lack of consistent, effective
action on the part of too many employers.
Three-quarters of people who responded had
experienced sexual harassment at work, nearly all of them
women, with the most common perpetrator a senior colleague.
However, just under a quarter of respondents
reported experiencing third party harassment, which is from a customer, client
or service user – an experience that will be familiar to many women who have
worked in a hotel or bar.
A more extreme recent example was the
experiences of event staff at the Presidents Club Dinner, which also highlighted
the role of confidentiality agreements in gagging some workers who experience
We know that there are a range of reasons why people
don’t feel confident reporting their experiences. Many believe nothing will be done as a result,
or fear they will suffer negative consequences such as blame or punishment.
respondents described receiving threats that their career could be damaged if
they pursued their complaint, or said they had been moved roles, disciplined or
even lost their job.
many the manner in which the complaint was handled compounded the impact the
harassment itself had on their physical and mental health. One respondent told
us ‘a partner who was close to the perpetrator said the firm would ensure my
career was destroyed if I told anyone else about the incidents. Another respondent stated ‘I lost my job, my
reputation and my health’.
What can employers do about it?
should make every effort to protect the welling and personal safety of their
employees. Not only is this the right
thing to do, but harassment can have a negative impact on workplace culture and
productivity and so an organisation’s reputation and effectiveness.
are legally responsible for ensuring that their workers do not face harassment,
and should take reasonable, proactive steps to protect them – which are
explained here: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/sexual-harassment-workplace
will be liable for harassment perpetrated by their workers if they fail to do
so. We recognise that harassment is a sensitive and complex issue.
is why we have also issued practical technical guidance on sexual harassment
and harassment at work to help employers, workers and their representatives understand
the law in this area.
sets out the best practice principles and actions for handling these issues in
is essential to have an anti-harassment policy that is familiar to all staff,
and adequate training and support for managers on how to recognise and address
workplace harassment – warning signs that could indicate an employee is being
harassed include increased absenteeism or lateness, or employees avoiding
must feel encouraged and able to safely report harassment, either as a victim
or witness, through anonymous reporting and other appropriate channels.
harassment may be difficult to eradicate entirely. But legal protections must be strengthened,
and by engaging with our guidance employers can be best placed to prevent
sexual harassment occurring, and to act quickly and effectively if it does. That way everyone can be safe and productive
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Alasdair MacDonald is Director of Programmes at the Equality & Human Rights Commission, the statutory body that promotes and safeguards the laws that protect our rights to fairness, dignity and respect.
He is a member of the Commission’s Executive Group and leads its work on employment, living standards, and participation.
Previously Alasdair was Director of Programmes at a major conservation NGO, overseeing a large team delivering programme and advocacy work in the UK and in eight countries around the world.
Prior to this he spent a number of years with Save the Children in various roles. This included leading strategy and operations for the charity’s policy, advocacy and campaigns; heading its accountability and transparency agenda; and senior roles in its international country offices.