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How to deal with sexual misconduct in the workplace

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Following the news of serious sexual misconduct complaints being investigated within the Houses of Parliament, Gemma McCall discusses the wider issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, and provides insights into ways in which employers can support their staff.

5th May 2022
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Hitting the headlines a few weeks ago was the news of 56 MPs facing allegations of sexual misconduct under the government’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.

The scheme was set up in response to the #MeToo movement of 2018, and is understood to be investigating 70 separate complaints regarding sexual misconduct in the Houses of Parliament. 

This high-profile investigation brings the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace back to the forefront, and highlights just how far we still need to go to create workplace cultures that prevent sexual misconduct whilst protecting employees.

Three-quarters of people admit to having experienced sexual harassment at work.

This is supported by a guide released by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which revealed that a staggering three-quarters of people admit to having experienced sexual harassment at work.

So, how can organisations ensure their employees are not at risk of facing sexual harassment in the workplace?

Make sure you have a strong anti-harassment policy and procedure in place

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s technical guidance states that all employers have a duty of care to protect their workers and will be legally liable for all harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it. 

Whilst this might seem obvious, having an effective policy in place is crucial to protect your employees from sexual harassment at work.

Your policy should define harassment with clear examples, provide a procedure for reporting claims of harassment, and give information on what steps will be taken to resolve a complaint and prevent it from happening again.

Having a clear anti-harassment policy and follow up procedure in place can prevent harassment from happening in the first place. By clearly defining what harassment is and what this can look like in the workplace, you can deter it. An effective policy raises awareness and accountability for sexual misconduct in the workplace. 

91% of UK employees agree that knowing their employer takes bullying & harassment complaints seriously is an important factor to their overall happiness at work. 

According to research conducted by Culture Shift, almost all (91%) employees across the UK say that knowing their employer takes bullying and harassment complaints seriously is an important factor to their overall happiness at work. 

With this in mind, establishing a comprehensive policy and procedure for dealing with sexual misconduct is the first step to ensuring your employees feel safe and happy at work.

Encourage employees to speak up 

At a most basic level, all workplaces should encourage a speak up culture and provide platforms to tackle problematic behaviour. It’s hugely important to have clear reporting pathways in place, encouraging people to speak up if they either experience or witness something concerning. 

Many employees will only feel comfortable reporting an incident if they can do so anonymously. In fact, Culture Shift research mentioned above, shows that more than 62% of employees would be much more likely to report an instance of harassment if their workplace had an anonymous platform to do so. 

Have mandatory anti-harassment training for employees

A speak up culture alongside an effective anti-harassment policy will contribute to a safer working environment, but a further step to take would be to mandate anti-harassment training for your employees.

This could be a good step to take with senior leadership teams and department managers initially, enabling them to enforce anti-harassment in their areas of work. 

A speak up culture alongside an effective anti-harassment policy will contribute to a safer working environment.

Training can educate and empower employees, giving them the information and tools they need to confidently recognise and report sexual misconduct. It is important not only to equip employees with procedures to follow if they are a victim of sexual misconduct, but also if they are an observer of it. 

Be consistent 

A good anti-harassment policy and reporting procedure is only beneficial if it is used consistently well. Make sure any claim is taken seriously, fully investigated and documented according to your HR policy. 

Inconsistencies when dealing with victims or observers of sexual misconduct in the workplace will create distrust, which can lead to absenteeism, unhappiness, and low productivity.  

Every incident of harassment, no matter its severity, should be dealt with using the same protocol and with the same consideration to the employee(s) involved. 

When reporting sexual misconduct, employees must feel as though their experiences are being taken seriously and properly dealt with, and they must be supported through the process.

Consider the workplace culture as a whole

An inclusive, positive workplace culture can build trust with employees and create an environment where sexual misconduct and harassment of any kind is unable to thrive. 

Building an open and honest culture which doesn’t tolerate any kind of harassment in the workplace, will help your organisation take a preventative approach and lead to eradicating misconduct. 

71% of investors wouldn’t invest in a company that had a problematic workplace culture.

As well as re-considering your approach to sexual misconduct in the workplace, cast the net wider to look at the workplace culture as a whole. The organisational structure should allow for open and honest communication on all issues, without fear of reputational damage or repercussions for employees. 

Creating a positive workplace culture is not only beneficial to employees but to the business’ reputation as a whole, and its future success. 

According to Culture Shift’s ‘Paying the Price for Problematic Behaviour’ report, 71% of investors wouldn’t invest in a company that had a problematic workplace culture.

This provides yet another reason for companies to ensure that a safe working environment is created and maintained in order to deal with sexual misconduct in the workplace. 

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