Time to Tackle Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


The #MeToo movement has shown that workplace sexual harassment remains a pervasive problem. From hospitality and the law to politics and entertainment, many people still experience significant negative effects of harassment and real barriers in trying to report it.

Harassment at work of any type is a destructive experience. It harms people’s mental and physical health, with consequences for both their personal and working life, and has a negative impact on workplace culture and productivity.

That’s why the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is urging the Government to legislate to make it a requirement for employers to take preventative steps to eliminate harassment.

The EHRC is urging the Government to legislate to make it a requirement for all employers to take preventative steps to address workplace harassment, to introduce a statutory code of practice, and reinstate the third-party harassment provisions of the Equality Act 2010.

How big a problem is workplace harassment?

Sexual harassment can be perpetrated or experienced by both men and women, straight or LGBT, but we know that women are most often the targets and men the perpetrators.

Harassment in the workplace largely reflects gender power imbalances that result in barriers and inequalities faced by women at work and in their everyday life.

Our report into sexual harassment uncovered the shocking and stark reality of people whose careers, wellbeing and health have been harmed by corrosive cultures that silence individuals and normalise harassment. We also found a lack of consistent, effective action on the part of too many employers.

Three-quarters of people who responded had experienced sexual harassment at work, nearly all of them women, with the most common perpetrator a senior colleague.

However, just under a quarter of respondents reported experiencing third party harassment, which is from a customer, client or service user – an experience that will be familiar to many women who have worked in a hotel or bar.

A more extreme recent example was the experiences of event staff at the Presidents Club Dinner, which also highlighted the role of confidentiality agreements in gagging some workers who experience harassment.

We know that there are a range of reasons why people don’t feel confident reporting their experiences. Many believe nothing will be done as a result, or fear they will suffer negative consequences such as blame or punishment.

Indeed, some respondents described receiving threats that their career could be damaged if they pursued their complaint, or said they had been moved roles, disciplined or even lost their job.

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For many the manner in which the complaint was handled compounded the impact the harassment itself had on their physical and mental health. One respondent told us ‘a partner who was close to the perpetrator said the firm would ensure my career was destroyed if I told anyone else about the incidents. Another respondent stated ‘I lost my job, my reputation and my health’.

What can employers do about it?

Employers should make every effort to protect the welling and personal safety of their employees. Not only is this the right thing to do, but harassment can have a negative impact on workplace culture and productivity and so an organisation’s reputation and effectiveness.

Employers are legally responsible for ensuring that their workers do not face harassment, and should take reasonable, proactive steps to protect them – which are explained here: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/sexual-harassment-workplace

They will be liable for harassment perpetrated by their workers if they fail to do so. We recognise that harassment is a sensitive and complex issue.

This is why we have also issued practical technical guidance on sexual harassment and harassment at work to help employers, workers and their representatives understand the law in this area.

It sets out the best practice principles and actions for handling these issues in the workplace.

It is essential to have an anti-harassment policy that is familiar to all staff, and adequate training and support for managers on how to recognise and address workplace harassment – warning signs that could indicate an employee is being harassed include increased absenteeism or lateness, or employees avoiding certain colleagues.

Staff must feel encouraged and able to safely report harassment, either as a victim or witness, through anonymous reporting and other appropriate channels.

Workplace harassment may be difficult to eradicate entirely. But legal protections must be strengthened, and by engaging with our guidance employers can be best placed to prevent sexual harassment occurring, and to act quickly and effectively if it does. That way everyone can be safe and productive at work.

About the Author:

Alasdair MacDonald is Director of Programmes at the Equality & Human Rights Commission, the statutory body that promotes and safeguards the laws that protect our rights to fairness, dignity and respect. He is a member of the Commission’s Executive Group and leads its work on employment, living standards, and participation. Previously Alasdair was Director of Programmes at a major conservation NGO, overseeing a large team delivering programme and advocacy work in the UK and in eight countries around the world. Prior to this he spent a number of years with Save the Children in various roles. This included leading strategy and operations for the charity’s policy, advocacy and campaigns; heading its accountability and transparency agenda; and senior roles in its international country offices.


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