Over half of women and two-thirds of LGBT+ people have experienced sexual harassment at work, while Black, disabled and young workers also report higher rates of harassment, according to Unison.

Alongside working hard to protect their people from incidents of sexual harassment, managers should be equally prepared to effectively deal with grievances as and when they arise.

Here’s our guide to investigating complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Firstly, what is sexual harassment in the workplace?  

As defined by ACAS, sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. Employees, contractors and job applicants are all protected by law, under the Equality Act 2010, against sexual harassment at work.

The unwanted behaviour must have either violated someone’s dignity (intended or not) or created an intimidating, humiliating or offensive environment for them (again, intended or not).

A person can experience sexual harassment from anyone they come into contact with because of their job, including a colleague, a manager/supervisor, a customer or even a member of the public.

What does sexual harassment in the workplace look like?

Sexual harassment can be a one-off or a series of ongoing incidents. It can happen in person or remotely, such as through emails, social media or messaging tools like WhatsApp.

Examples include:

  • Making unwanted sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance
  • Asking questions about someone’s gender, sexual orientation or sex life
  • Telling sexually offensive jokes
  • Displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual content
  • Touching someone against their will
  • Sexual assault or rape

Sexual harassment is usually directed at an individual, but this is not always the case. In workplaces where there is a culture of sexual harassment where no one person is specifically targeted, for example the widespread sharing of sexual images amongst a team, someone could still make a complaint.

Why does sexual harassment occur in the workplace?

Sexual harassment can be a problem in any workplace and affect any worker, regardless of an organisation’s size or the nature of the business.

It is often linked with power, either through an abuse of power by the perpetrator who feels more powerful than the target, or when the perpetrator feels powerless and uses sexual harassment as a means to dominate their target.

According to a 2019 report by Unison, there are certain factors linked to an increased chance of sexual harassment taking place. These include:

  • Male-dominated environments, especially where women fulfil stereotypically “male” roles
  • Industries where sexual harassment is widely seen as “part of the job”
  • Lone working
  • An organisational tolerance of sexism and sexual harassment
  • Weak oversight of middle management
  • Lack of encouragement to report incidents

Ultimately, a workplace’s culture and ethos have a huge impact on the occurrence of sexual harassment.

Why is it important to report incidents of sexual harassment?

The impact of sexual harassment can be devastating, not just for the individual, but for an organisation too. It can leave a person feeling afraid, ashamed, humiliated and undermined, which can result in serious mental health problems and impact their physical health. Inevitably, their performance at work will be affected, which can filter through a workforce damaging morale and productivity, increasing employee turnover and harming an organisation’s brand reputation.

How can someone make a report of sexual harassment at work?

Employers have a duty to do all they reasonably can to protect their people from sexual harassment, this includes taking steps to encourage the reporting of incidents.

It is important to have well-communicated and easily-accessible policies and procedures in place that clearly outline how victims of sexual harassment, or those that witness incidents of sexual harassment, can lodge a complaint.

A number of reporting lines can be offered, including speaking to a manager, a HR representative or a specifically trained member of staff. Organisations may also offer an anonymous reporting hotline, which provides a safe platform for employees to raise concerns and facilitate bystander intervention.

What happens when a report is made?

As an employer, you should take any complaint of sexual harassment very seriously and think carefully about the best way to handle it. You may decide the most appropriate way is to ask the person who has experienced the harassment to raise a formal grievance and instigate a workplace investigation so you can hear evidence from both sides in a fair process.

If a complaint has been made a long time after an incident you should still take it seriously and investigate it as fully as you can. In some cases, there may be limits on how far the complaint can go, for example, if the accused or witnesses no longer work for you or some evidence was destroyed a long time ago because it was thought it was no longer needed. You should immediately tell the complainant of any limitations, continue to investigate as best as you can and keep them informed of your progress and any outcomes.

If someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted or raped, they may wish to report the incident to the police. You should support them if they decide to speak to the police, and consider seeking legal advice.

Who should undertake a workplace investigation?

An investigation should be undertaken by a trained in-house professional, with no personal or professional stakes in the outcome, to ensure a fair and impartial process.

The chosen investigator should be able to keep an open mind and not let their own experiences or bias influence how they handle a complaint or even dismiss a concern. For example, understanding that behaviour they personally would not find unwanted or offensive might have a very different effect on someone else.

If a grievance is particularly serious, involves senior employees or if there are not enough levels of seniority to escalate the case, working with an external investigator is recommended.

What is involved in an investigation?

In a disciplinary procedure, the person investigating should be gathering evidence to discover if there is an issue to be addressed, not try to prove guilt.

They should do their best to:

  • Be fair and objective
  • Follow any policies and procedures their organisation might have
  • Keep the case confidential
  • Gather as much balanced evidence as possible from both sides
  • Present findings in a transparent and comprehensive report.

Sexual harassment is a highly sensitive subject so, during an investigation, support and assurance should be offered to the employee making the complaint and the person being accused. The complainant may be very worried that they will not be taken seriously, will have to confront the person they have accused or be quizzed about their personal life, while the person who is subject of the grievance may be very distressed and concerned about the impartiality of an investigation and the impact on their career. Offering mental health support is therefore particularly important in these cases.

Where can I find more support?

Tell Jane offers a wide range of services to support fair, inclusive and impartial workplace investigations into sexual harassment. These include thorough training for in-house investigators and carrying out independent investigations on behalf of organisations across the UK, as well as an anonymous employee hotline service and sexual harassment prevention training.

Email hello@telljane.co.uk to find out more.

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