Working together to address sexual harassment

CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese addresses how HR can help tackle sexual harassment

Given that many surveys indicate that 50% or more of women (and around 10% of men) have experienced harassment in the workplace, we know that sexual harassment is not confined simply to the corridors of Westminster or the casting couches of Hollywood.

It is vital now that every business uses this time to properly reflect on their cultures and how they can more openly discuss the issues of harassment in the workplace. Harassment covers a broad spectrum of behaviour and interpretations, so we must set clear guidelines of acceptable behaviours and ensure everyone is aware of them. All of us, but particularly managers and leaders need to be held to account for them, including setting the right tone from the top. Training can help, but of greatest value is to bring men and women together to discuss their perspectives, to encourage people speaking up when they see or are aware of misaligned behaviours.

HR has an important role in setting the appropriate policies and processes, and as a safe channel for concerns, to provide advice and support to individuals and insights on the culture. It also needs the confidence to respond objectively to claims that are made and challenge where it sometimes must to properly bring perpetrators to account. For small businesses or individual workers, other channels may need to be developed. Everyone should be able to come to work and be treated fairly and with respect.

Harassment typically happens from men in positions of power taking advantage of women who are their junior or may see themselves as beholden to the men for their position. Where the job or role is less secure or hard to obtain, this power differential and risk increases. But that sort of culture does not appear overnight, and is often fed by historic condonation of ‘casual’ sexism that then sets a tone that harassment can feed off. Victims will be less inclined to come forward if they believe that the leadership is more concerned about protecting reputations than taking a stand against harassment, which makes the role leaders play in building the right culture crucial.