UK: The Epidemic Of Sexual Harassment In The Workplace damages Profits

The spectre of sexual harassment has arisen again with the recent survey carried out by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) revealing that seven out of 10 employees from the LGBT community have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment in the workplace, with women being the most likely targets.  One in six of the respondents said that they had left their job as a result of unwanted touching, sexual assault or attempts to kiss them.  TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady commented: "This research reveals a hidden epidemic". 

This new research supports the findings of the Women & Equalities Committee's report 2017-19 which exposed the high level of sexual harassment of workers and the lackadaisical attitude displayed by employers as well as what amounts to acceptance of such behaviour as part of life.  A previous report on schools, published in September 2016, it was found that sexual harassment of girls was being accepted as part of daily life in schools.  It is no surprise that when young girls enter the workplace they do not report such behaviour as they have grown up with it.

The Equality Act 2010 is specific on the definition of sexual harassment as  "unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment."  The description covers sexual jokes and comments, remarks about a person's appearance or body, even if the person making the remarks thinks they are flattering, exposing a person to pornographic material, wolf-whistling and cat-calling, sexual advances, flashing, groping, sexual assault and rape.  Certain categories of workers appear to be more susceptible to such approaches, young women, individuals with health issues such as a disability or chronic illness and those people who fall into a sexual minority group.  Men are increasingly more likely to become victims of sexual harassment carried out by both men and women.  Whilst the vast majority of perpetrators are men but there are a significant number of women who are also perpetrators against both men and women as well as men who harass other men.  It would be dangerous to portray the issue as a female-only problem.

The failure by employers to act decisively is surprising as the Equality Act 2010 clearly places liability for acts of sexual harassment by one employee against another at the door of the employer unless they have taken reasonable steps to prevent such behaviour.  Not only is there a moral case to act there is also a clear business case in that staff who are harassed are likely to take more time off, work less efficiently and leave their jobs which creates the need to recruit and train a new person, all of which is time-consuming and expensive.  Furthermore, the perpetrator is likely to be a recidivist and the cycle will repeat all over again with the new recruit. 

The lack of awareness at the most senior levels of business regarding the extent of sexual harassment in their organisations is both surprising and damaging to an organisation.  Sue Coe, Principal for Work and Employment at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), believes that the majority of large organisations pay lip-service to the Equality Act and simply have "just paper-based compliance".  She also commented that: "you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of organisations that have taken steps to train staff on the subject of sexual harassment and evaluate that training, including steps at induction; who also tracked those employees who had raised complaints to make sure that they were not being victimised and were not blocked in their progression in the organisation".

Even more surprising is the level of apathy public sector bodies have towards the subject.  Under the Public Sector Equality Duty, public bodies are subject to robust directions to eliminate discrimination, including sexual harassment.  However, in practise, there does not even seem to be the appetite to gather information about the level of the problems within their own organisations.  The Civil Service collects annual statistics on the extent of bullying and harassment is does not collect specific information on sexual harassment.  Commonly in both the public and private sectors any information and statistics gathered in surveys conducted by the organisations frequently does not match the number of reports, complaints or grievances made by the staff.   When the National Police Chiefs Council's Chief Constable Julian Williams canvassed 17 police forces which had in total, 180,000 staff he found that in seven years there had only been 194 cases of sexual harassment which had been dealt with internally.  However, a survey of just 189 senior women police officers it was found that one-third of them had been subject to a variety of types of sexual harassment.  Similarly, the Civil Service which employs 380,000 people only dealt with an improbable 21 grievances relating to sexual harassment in 2016-17.  In the private sector the recent case of the Ted Baker HR team brushing off CEO Ray Kelvin's "forced hugging" as "that's just Ray" and Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, exit in the wake of similar accusations, together with the dramatic Google walk-out where staff globally demonstrated against the ignoring of sexual harassment complaints shows that there is a mood for change and any business or organisation that fails to take notice will do so at their peril.  Failing to recognise the risks and the potential damage and bottom line impact that surrounds the question of sexual harassment in the workplace is a fundamental error and should not be ignored.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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