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.