Background

 
Sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, legislation has been a firm part of equalities law in the UK for several decades. However, CIPD research in 2020 shows sexual harassment is still a serious problem in some UK workplaces: 4% of employees said they had been sexually harassed at work over the past three years, with younger employees more likely to report this experience: 8% of employees aged 18–34, compared with 4% aged 35–44 and 3% aged 45-64. Women are significantly more likely than men to report they have experienced both bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace (17% versus 13% and 7% versus 2%, respectively). Further, almost a quarter (24%) of employees think that challenging issues like bullying and harassment are swept under the carpet in their organisation.
 
These findings show that regulation alone - although very important in setting standards and providing a route for individuals to bring a claim for harassment - is not enough to stamp out discriminatory attitudes and behaviour towards women in the workplace. 
 
The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.’

CIPD viewpoint

We know from our research that the majority of employers have a positive approach to gender equality, but clearly there are still many organisations that are not fostering inclusive workplaces. If the working culture does not support gender equality and women, or men, are afraid to speak up and challenge inappropriate behaviour, this could have serious implications for the business. Any form of discrimination or harassment is totally unacceptable from a moral and legal standpoint – in society and at work. Also, many employers are likely to be losing valuable female talent by default if they do not treat complaints of harassment seriously and the culture is one where issues are pushed under the carpet. 
 
There are also serious consequences for organisations from a wider perspective. People who experience bullying or harassment are more likely to be depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their work, have a low opinion of their managers and senior managers, and want to leave their organisation. The CIPD 2020 research shows how devastating the negative effects of conflict like bullying and harassment can be on people. Stress, a drop in motivation or commitment, anxiety and a loss of self-confidence are the most common effects on people, but some individuals say the impact is felt for years, and their confidence will never be the same again.
 
In terms of sexual harassment in relation to women, there are implications for how organisations attract and retain talent, for the female labour market and for women’s economic independence. Discrimination and harassment against women will also do nothing to alleviate the stubborn gender pay gap phenomenon and improve female representation at the top of organisations, which can contribute to innovation and business success. An organisation’s public image can be badly damaged when harassment incidents occur, particularly when they attract media attention. This can affect relationships between an employer and their current and future employees, as well as their customers.
 
Successive CIPD surveys have shown how much employers value talent and the importance they attach to fostering diversity and inclusion. This makes the serious gap in workplace diversity practices identified by the recent exposure of widespread sexual harassment all the more alarming.

How should organisations respond?

Organisations should treat any form of alleged harassment seriously, not just because of the legal implications and because it can lead to under-performance, but also because people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect at work. Any evidence of discriminatory behaviour or harassment among staff, whatever their gender, needs to be investigated and acted on swiftly and a clear message sent out that it will not be tolerated. Harassment can come in many different forms and is not necessarily overt – but even banter, jokes or unwanted attention based on gender difference can be harassment. 
 
Employers should establish a robust framework and policies to counter any potential harassment or discrimination against women, including unconscious bias, and these policies need to cover every aspect of employment including recruitment and selection, training, and promotion. There should be a clear process communicated to all staff about how to raise a complaint and to whom, so that everyone in the organisation understands how to raise any concerns and what steps will be taken. Line managers should be trained and confident in implementing the organisation’s policies and dealing with any concerns or complaints. They should also be competent to have open and sensitive conversations with individuals and manage conflict. 
 
Some complaints may be dealt with internally and informally, depending on their level of seriousness. In lower level cases it may be sufficient for the person experiencing the harassment to raise the issue with the perpetrator, pointing out the unacceptable behaviour. But if an employee finds this difficult or embarrassing, procedures should enable support from a colleague, an appropriate manager or someone from HR. If informal approaches don’t work, formal procedures should be triggered if the harassment is serious or persists, or if the individual prefers this approach.
 
Given their sensitive and potentially complex nature, organisations may wish to consider dealing with issues involving bullying and harassment under a separate procedure. There is an understandable lack of confidence on the part of many people experiencing or witnessing inappropriate behaviour, such as harassment or discrimination, to formally report it. The 2020 CIPD research explores whether the increased focus on sexual harassment, for example through high-profile scandals reported in the media and the #MeToo movement, has changed workplace attitudes. Encouragingly, it identifies a positive change in the past two years in employees’ confidence about tackling sexual harassment: a third (33%) feel more confident to challenge it and almost the same proportion (29%) feel more confident to raise a complaint about it.
 
Organisations may want to consider using more proactive and innovative reporting channels such as anonymous and/or confidential methods like telephone helplines run by third parties to provide support, and/or online reporting tools to report harassment.
 
Once organisations have developed clear processes on how to deal with harassment, the priority should be to follow them consistently. Fair processes need to be followed in a reliable way, without fail, both to give confidence to victims that their cases will be taken seriously and to ensure that anyone accused is treated fairly, according to due process. Every case should be investigated objectively and no concerns should be brushed under the carpet.
 
If a manager is the alleged source of the problem, employees need to feel they can turn to someone else in the business if they have been the victim of harassment or discrimination. HR has a vital role to play here, ensuring that all complaints are taken seriously and investigated in line with the law and the organisation's procedures. Fairness should underpin the process, and the organisation’s procedures should protect both the individual raising the issue and the individual against whom an allegation has been made.
 
Where a complaint is upheld, it may be necessary to relocate or transfer one of those involved to another part of the organisation. If appropriate, guidance and counselling can be offered to people whose behaviour is unacceptable, as well as those affected by the harassment. 
 
Employers should always make a record of complaints and investigations. These should include the names of the people involved, dates, the nature and frequency of incidents, action taken, follow-up and monitoring information. 

Prevention is better than cure

When dealing with harassment at work, prevention is better than cure. Engaging with employees on the issue and raising awareness of the company’s zero-tolerance policy for unacceptable behaviour are key to avoiding incidences of sexual harassment occurring in the first place. A workplace environment which values difference, is free from hostility and based on tolerance, will enable people to contribute more effectively and achieve higher levels of job satisfaction. People cannot make their best contribution if they are working in fear of harassment or bullying. Alongside policies, employers should promote the importance of respect between employees at every level of the organisation, encouraging a supportive and inclusive culture so that people's behaviour reflects the right values.
 
Senior and middle managers have a defining influence on the working culture and set the tone for expectations around dignity and respect. They need to take a visible lead on the issue and set the tone for fostering a working environment where people feel empowered to speak up. How managers role-model respectful behaviour will be instrumental in setting the right expectations for everyone. Therefore, it’s encouraging that in our 2020 research a significant proportion of employers report positive behavioural change among senior leaders, managers as well as employees. The organisation also needs to be seen to take swift and robust action where needed, and deal appropriately with any criticism that could be focused on issues relating to leadership and trust. Senior leaders and line managers need to consistently role model and champion these behaviours so that people feel secure and can get on with their work without worry or fear of recrimination should they raise any concerns.
 
HR also has a crucial role to play in helping to build a workplace culture that is inclusive, and fosters openness and transparency. The profession has a responsibility to ensure that any poor practices and behaviours that have led in the past to grievances and complaints do not continue.
 
Organisations should also strive to develop a culture in which harassment is known to be unacceptable and where individuals are confident enough to bring complaints without fear of ridicule or reprisal. Organisations should deal promptly, seriously and discreetly with any issues that are raised.
 
The first step to achieving this is to put in place a robust policy that clearly articulates the organisation’s commitment to promoting dignity and respect at work. Communicating the details of this policy is crucial, so that all individuals know their rights, what steps to take if they want to make a complaint, but also that they have a responsibility to behave in ways which support a non-hostile working environment for themselves and their colleagues. Induction is a good way of raising awareness and setting clear expectations of behaviour from the start of someone’s employment. These standards need to be reiterated and updated on a regular basis to build an inclusive culture that doesn’t tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment. 
 
Employees, and in particular line managers, should be encouraged to play their part in making the organisation’s policy a reality, and be prepared to challenge inappropriate behaviour and take action if they observe or have evidence that someone is being harassed. Line managers are at the forefront of identifying and managing conflict, including bullying and harassment, as well as often being a cause of it. They need to have the confidence and capability to be proactive and deal with unfair treatment at the earliest possible stage: this means challenging behaviours that cross the line into being inappropriate and being sensitive to situations where banter becomes bickering or bullying, as well as picking up on any underlying tensions in their team. The tendency for organisations, and the people profession, to be compliance-focused and rely on the perceived safety of formal procedures to resolve conflict is even truer of people managers, particularly where they lack the ongoing guidance and support of HR. It’s vital that employers, and people professionals, invest in the skills and competence of managers so that they are not afraid of tackling conflict head on and encouraging informal, positive routes to resolution where appropriate.
 
Organisations should monitor the gender diversity of its workforce at every level, including at recruitment, for succession planning and for recording the number of women who are making it into middle and senior level management roles. Through tracking this data, it should be possible to have a clear picture of whether or not there is any potential discrimination or harassment on grounds of gender. Staff attitude surveys are also a valuable way of gathering feedback from people on their perceptions in areas like gender equality. It's in the interest of employers to not only eradicate discrimination against women in the workplace, but to develop proactive strategies for progressing female talent, so that they can reap the many benefits from having a gender-diverse workforce.

Further resources

DISCLAIMER: The materials in this guidance are provided for general information purposes and do not constitute legal or other professional advice. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances may impact the accuracy and validity of the information. The CIPD is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for any action or decision taken as a result of using the guidance. You should consult a professional adviser for legal or other advice where appropriate.

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