An uncomfortable conversation about sexual harassment at work

By Sarah Jurado, Head of Brand & Communications, CIPD

It’s an appalling fact that sexual harassment is a pervasive reality in our work places, an area that has garnered an avalanche of media headlines post-Weinstein. Those headlines have been met with compassion, bravery and encouragement to speak out from #MeToo to #WithYou. But they have also led to division and derision, from ‘knee-gate’ and ‘over-zealous huggers’ to ‘predators and philanderers’.

Our bold new HR Leaders Forum (powered by the CIPD and Jericho Chambers) focusing on the future of work, gathered a diverse, eclectic group of (male and female) HR professionals, leading thinkers and activists this month to have an open, honest, sometimes uncomfortable conversation about sexual harassment at work and what we need to do next to tackle it and create enduring change.

Our passionate panelists and provocateurs – Emma Astner, Co-Founder of Koppe Astner Art Gallery; Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas and a panelist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; Hannah Peaker, Chief of Staff for the Women’s Equality Party; and Professor Diane Perrons. Co-Director of Gender, Inequality and Power at the London School of Economics – provided powerful thoughts and insights leading to a punchy debate.

I have captured my experience of the debate and some of the insights that were shared to open up the conversation and help those in the people profession – from HR to L&D and OD – to connect with each other and find solutions that will live on long after the headlines have faded.

(The views are those of the panelists and attendees. The debate was conducted under the Chatham House Rule.)

Pervasive power perverts
The opening statement from one of our contributors was that sexual harassment is not normal and that it is illegal, of which no one was in dispute. But little else said during the session was met with such staunch agreement. As one guest remarked, ‘I’m sat here nodding to both sides, even when I disagree’ something that I observed among most of our guests throughout the conversation.

There were a number of really big themes that came through from all sides of the debate. The first was power and power imbalances. According to one, ‘If we are to change our workplaces then we need to focus on deconstructing power, both in work and in society.

They went on to say that, ‘Sexual harassment is pervasive. It is seen as natural because it is infantilised, scorned and threatened by those who control the power structures in work who are often (but not always) men… We need to dismantle uneven gender power structures, constructed in law. We need to put ceilings on male positions of power – not just quotas for women.’ Queue a combination of vehement nods of agreement and a ripple of raised eye-brows as people reflected on the implications of a cap on the number of men that could hold any position of power in society.

‘Squandering a positive moment on Weinstein’
A heavy note of caution was expressed to the room to not get carried along by the media scrum, with one person commenting, ‘We’re in a panic and run the risk of squandering what could be a positive moment on Weinstein.’

They continued, ‘The conversation on sexual harassment has gone from the heinous to the petty, blurring the lines between illegal sexual harassment and workplace banter – which isn’t always threatening… It’s not liberating for women to be surrounded by all these apparent threats.’

They also expressed contempt for the fact that women are often lumped together as a group and expected to act and think the same on issues like sexual harassment. ‘Not all women think the same or are the same. I reject the idea that women should all come together in solidarity and share a common view.’ They went on to say that, ‘Malicious gossip and prudish hearsay are being misused for personal reasons. Some women lie... innocent men are losing their jobs.’ Comments which raised audible gasps from around the room.

While the views expressed might be considered shocking by some, they led to an important discussion about due process, “innocent until proven guilty”, and how those in the people profession respond when allegations are made at work. It also emphasised the different voices in the room and in society on the issue of sexual harassment underscoring, for me, the importance of creating space for those in the people profession to debate and share ideas. As you’d expect the comments also provoked impassioned reactions.

A celebration of different women’s voices and experiences
One person was particularly angered by the comments, which they said were, ‘Deviant examples being proffered to prove a certain point.’ They continued, ‘The prism this is all being interpreted through is called the media (which has its own issues with sexism). No one has argued women have to see things in a certain way – instead #MeToo and #WithYou have been a celebration of different women’s voices and experiences.’ A statement that I found very powerful, but which also underscored the previous point that there are many diverse views and voices in this debate.

Some robust conversation followed about the importance of being able to speak out and have a voice at work – another key theme. This included a range of views on whether or not social media is a powerful tool to voice allegations and experiences of sexual harassment at work, which has led in some cases to people being fired or suspended from their jobs.

One person remarked, ‘For women to look back at their past experiences may be a moment of awakening which shouldn’t be scoffed at. We overplay women who wrongfully accuse… Many of the women who spoke out recently about sexual harassment and abuse in the House of Commons, for example, said they’d reported what had happened and had not been listened to. So they had to come out in the way they did [through social media] because processes were not being followed.’

Everyone must have a voice, not just the privileged few
A number of guests said that freedom of voice is still for the few and that too many people are being silenced through fear, concerns over job security, or lack of a system or an HR department to provide support.

One person said, ‘The #MeToo campaign saw many women speak out about their experiences. Having this voice, however, is a privilege. With growing job insecurity and laws that simply aren’t working, the privilege of voice is still only for the few; and many women are unable to speak out for fear of ramifications or being branded as ‘feminist killjoys’’.

Another commented, ‘We are in a world where there is complacency over what I would call accepted unacceptable behavior. I had a window to speak out online [about my experiences] and felt a sense of relief and liberation. We all carry small experiences with us every day and this is burdening us and holding us back. It’s not about victims and perverts it’s about how power is being manipulated – power exists because of privileges. This is the problem and sexual harassment that isn’t called out is a symptom of these bigger problems.’

Education starts at school
Concerns were also expressed about whether enough is being done to educate young people on workplace culture and harassment. One forum member – who was representing the voice of young people – said that greater provisions need to be made in school to educate young people, especially men, to be more socially aware and tackle problems that exist in the workplace early.

They said, ‘[At university] I see how [young] men, behaving like boys, talk about women, even when they’re in front of me, and how careless they are. There’s no one to regulate them or their views and then that is taken into the workplace. There’s no room on our degree courses for learning about interacting with people and how to behave in work. Yes, these guys [from university] might be smart and go on to have important jobs, but they are just going to perpetuate their views [of women] in the workplace.’
The comments led to a brief discussion about whether or not women call men out enough. And if men really understand how their behaviour and views make women feel? Some people went as far to suggest that men are naive about the impact of their actions on women.

There was also a conversation about whether or not creating safe spaces for women was the right thing to do, such as the suggestions made by the Labour party for women-only carriages on trains. Most people in the room rejected this idea. Instead, the focus was on freedom and equality for women. ‘Equality and fairness applies to both sides of any complaint. Let’s not wrap women up in cotton wool in the workplace,’ said one HR leader.

HR ‘will walk with you’
Talk moved to workplace culture and the role of HR. One HR professional said, ‘We need to create a culture in our workplaces where women can speak out. Where people can trust that HR is going to walk with you while you do this. Yes, there are policies in place. But we need to show that anyone will be backed up if they call something out. People should be able to feel safe and be themselves at work, without repercussions. It’s about creating an adult workplace.’ Or, as one forum member put it, a ‘no arseholes policy’, which really resonated with those in the room.

While policies were considered necessary for HR to be able to support and protect people in work, the strongly held view of most was that they are not enough and that judgement, underpinned by principles, must always be applied.

One HR leader remarked, ‘The role of a really good HR professional is to handle things carefully and sensitively with discretion. Policy is not the be all and end all. You can have your rules but they have to be applied with judgement and discretion – you have to always question why.’

Principles not policing
As the debate came to a close the prevailing view was that it is ‘a matter of principles not policing’ when it comes to making significant changes to workplace cultures. A senior business leader concluded, ‘Discretion and judgement seems the right approach. Tolerance and respect and driving through the values of an organisations is how to create lasting change. Yes, rules create boundaries, but they are not absolute and I’m not hearing [from anyone in the room] that we need to legislate more – the law is sufficient. HR’s role is not just cure its prevention as well. We have to challenge and have the confidence to call it [sexual harassment] out.’

What was clear from the discussion was that sexual harassment is a subject that demands the full skills of HR professionals at the top of their game, as well as the need for good judgement in applying the processes that ensure we have a supportive system that isn’t abused or broken.

Where do you sit on the debate? Have you had similar discussions in your organisations? We’d love your feedback and to get your views. You can pick up the conversation on the CIPD’s community forum.

In the meantime, here are six things the HR profession and the CIPD can do to tackle sexual harassment in work, taken from the forum, with links to some useful resources. You can also read the lead story in this month’s People Management magazine on sexual harassment titled What now?

Six things the HR profession can do – according the Forum

1. Go nose-to-nose with bosses: ‘HR professionals need to feel empowered to challenge the status quo and to change workplace cultures. If someone has to whistle-blow about sexual harassment at work, then HR has failed. HR needs to contract internally to preserve its voice - not have a sword hanging over them. Put your evidence forward and be nose-to -nose with your bosses without fear of victimisation.’
2. Bin Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs): ‘NDAs silence people; we need more transparency around the number of settlements that take place, the frequency and costs.’
3. Call out the criminal: ‘Sexual harassment is a criminal act. HR needs to remind people of that and create an environment where people can disclose without becoming victims; guidelines on behaviour should be reinforced and we need to challenge institutionalised gendering of power structures.’
4. Take away the shame: ‘The more that we speak out, the less shame, sadness and embarrassment there will be. Sharing is empowering. But we’re not far along enough in having open dialogue. HR needs to take away the shame of speaking out.’
5. Create courageous conversations: HR professionals should consider training for courageous conversations so that they can be normalised at work.
6. Change structural inequalities: ‘HR is being thrown under a bus and the expertise of HR professionals being ignored to protect organisations. HR professionals need to assert themselves. Everyone’s so desperate for a solution and that solution is to change structural inequalities e.g. better childcare provision.’

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