Sexual harassment is a major contributor to a toxic workplace culture and is often underreported. To fulfil your duty of care to your people, it is vital that employers understand the impact of sexual harassment and the steps to take to prevent it.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted sexual behaviour – physical or verbal, in person or online. It can be a single incident or a repeated pattern, and it can happen to anyone of any gender. Common examples of sexual harassment include:
- Unwelcome sexual advances or propositions
- Invasive questions and sexual comments
- Degrading or sexually offensive jokes
- Emails or messages with sexual content
- Sharing or displaying pornographic material (text, drawings, photographs or videos)
- Unwanted or inappropriate touching (which may also constitute sexual assault)
Sexual harassment is about power – it involves making someone feel uncomfortable, humiliated or intimidated. It may be perpetrated by colleagues, by clients or customers, or by managers or leaders.
Women report experiencing higher levels of sexual harassment, but men can also be victims. In addition, LGBT+ people may be at increased risk of sexual harassment on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.
What are the consequences of sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment can make victims feel unsafe and unvalued at work, especially if incidents go unreported or complaints are not taken seriously. This has knock-on effects on mental health, motivation, team cohesion and productivity throughout your company.
In the era of #MeToo, sexual harassment is also likely to have reputational consequences. Tolerating harassment can mean losing out on talent and business, as potential employees and prospective clients increasingly choose to avoid toxic company cultures. Plus, there are potential legal consequences; under the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination.
As an employer, your duty of care and responsibility for preventing sexual harassment doesn’t stop at the end of the working day nor at the threshold of the office building. It encompasses any company sites and external work-related events (such as training days and social events), as well as the digital realm. When it comes to harassment by clients or customers, if a complaint is raised and no action is taken to stop the harassment, the employer is likely to be held liable.
If you’re concerned about sexual harassment and your workplace, contact our team today for confidential advice and practical guidance.
Speak out against workplace sexual harassment
Many people who experience sexual harassment at work fear the consequences of speaking out, especially if the harasser is in a position of authority. It is therefore vital to provide platforms for employees to seek advice anonymously.
The freephone Tell Jane employee hotline provides a safe, confidential space for employees to seek advice or report an incident of sexual harassment. For organisations, it helps to build a clear picture of the existing workplace culture, address any toxic undercurrents and respond to complaints before they escalate into formal grievances.