A roguish smile. A hand lightly brushing your shoulder. A playful text message. From the right person at the right time, flirting can feel great. But when this attention is uninvited, that look, that touch, that text can make you feel uncomfortable.

Humans are inclined to accept invitations of connection. It’s a survival instinct of our ancestors; having people watch your back would minimise the risk of danger. Nowadays, we flirt for the purposes of companionship; it builds trust and makes establishing relationships fun.

Companionship is also important for colleagues in the workplace with a 2023 survey by Forbes Advisor revealing 43% of employees have married someone they have worked with. We spend the majority of our adult lives at work, so office romances are a reality that we cannot ignore but also don’t need to control or prevent through policies and procedures.

What we need here, is to understand the difference between consensual flirting and sexual harassment, and have robust processes in place for preventing and tackling harassment.

What is the difference between flirting and sexual harassment?

Flirtation is the act of being charming with someone you are romantically keen on, who has also signalled in some way that they are interested in you. Sexual harassment is an act of unsolicited sexualised behaviour towards someone who has provided no cue that this would be welcome.

Anyone being sexually harassed in the workplace is protected by the Equality Act 2010, which defines the act as “unwanted conduct of a sexual a nature” which violates a person’s dignity or creates an “intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment”.

According to the results of a poll led by the TUC, released this May, three in five women say they have experienced harassment at work, which rises to almost two in three for those aged 25 to 34.

Sadly this shows that no workplace is immune from such undesirable conduct and efforts need to be put in place to ensure everyone feels safe at work.

Why does sexual harassment happen?

Imbalance of power is a key driver of sexual harassment, which makes workplaces – with their differing levels of seniority and age – prime environments for such behaviour to exist. Women are more likely to be victims of harassment because they more often than men lack power, are in more insecure positions and, historically, a culture of silence has prevailed.

For example, a harasser may be in a position of power or carry influence over the person who they are harassing because they are a direct supervisor, could impact that person’s career, or are a valued stakeholder in/of the business.

How can I help those who feel they have been harassed?

Crucially, to really help, you want to give victims every opportunity you can to speak up and feel confident that their concerns will be taken seriously.

  • Clear reporting lines

All employees should be made aware how to raise a complaint and to whom. Some people may understandably lack confidence in reporting such incidents, so companies may consider offering confidential methods of reporting such as employee hotlines run by third parties who can provide support. This may encourage more people to come forward if complaints centre on a manager or senior figure in the company.

  • Training for line managers

A line manager may be the first person a victim speaks to. They need to be competent, not just in implementing their organisation’s policies and procedures, but in being able to have open and sensitive conservations.

  • Follow your policies and procedures

It may feel appropriate to deal with complaints informally, depending on their level of seriousness, which could involve a manager simply raising the issue with the perpetrator, especially if the harasser believes they were innocently “flirting”. However, if this approach does not work, formal procedures – such as a workplace investigation – should be triggered. It’s important that all policies and procedures are followed consistently and diligently to give confidence to victims that their cases will be taken seriously.

  • Be objective

All cases should be investigated objectively and with fairness. Your company’s procedures should ensure protection for both the person raising the issue and the alleged perpetrator.

  • Take action

Make sure suitable sanctions are given when a complaint is upheld to show incidents are not simply swept under the carpet. If appropriate, you may wish to offer support to those whose behaviour falls below par, as well as those affected by the harassment.

How can I prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place?

Let’s say first off, flirting in the workplace, when appropriate, not causing offense to others and is consensual, is not wrong. Following #MeToo, research suggested that men were concerned about how to conduct themselves around women in the workplace, but no one should think that by calling out harassment bosses are killing romance. It shouldn’t be impossible for people to form relationships by holding those accountable who perpetuate unacceptable behaviour.

The answer is simple – just treat everyone with dignity and respect. However, sadly, sexual harassment is a social problem and cannot be stopped by altering the behaviour of mere individuals. So, to prevent harassment from happening, we need to ensure we nurture workplace cultures that celebrate difference and promote the importance of respect.

Unlike pulling together a complaints procedure, work on fostering a culture of inclusivity is not something that can be done overnight. It requires the consistent evaluation and reinforcement of values; work that is truly never done.

Here’s how you get started:

  • Decide on your values

Start by putting in place a robust policy that states your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity and promotes dignity and respect at work.

  • Engage with your people

Then, live and breathe those values! Ensure your employees know what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable behaviour through training. In fact, according to Acas, 60% of people believe that better awareness of sexual harassment through training would be effective in reducing incidents in the workplace. Induction may be a good place to set clear expectations but these need to be reiterated to all employees on a regular basis.

  • Be consistent

Make sure your leaders play their part in making your company’s policies a reality, by always taking action when inappropriate behaviour is witnessed or reported, and by being consistent role models in their behaviour towards their teams.

  • Take time to listen

Proactively and regularly listening to your employees is vital. Anonymous surveys are one valuable way of gathering feedback on what is happening in your workplace and what your employees feel should be improved.

 

While prevention is better than cure, incidents of harassment do occur. At Tell Jane, our highly-experienced HR practitioners can help you resolve issues before they escalate, conduct independent investigations on your behalf and establish preventative methods to protect your business and people from the future impact of toxic behaviour. Get in touch by emailing hello@telljane.co.uk to find out more about how we can support you.

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