Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace – new obligations proposed

The government has responded to its recent consultation on sexual harassment  in the workplace and confirmed a proposal to introduce a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment, introduce protections against third party harassment, and extend times for bringing claims. We don’t yet have the detail, and the changes will only be introduced when Parliamentary time allows.

However, this prompted us to think about the need for organisations to take action now and our thoughts follow – it’s about a 10 minute read, with what we hope are some really practical ideas.

In this context it’s worth noting that employers already have a defence if they can show that they have taken ‘all reasonable steps to prevent’ harassment from happening, so it’s a really important aspect of managing the workplace right now.

Developments and encouragement to take action now

Over the last 18 months, the #blacklivesmatters and #metoo movements have grown in strength. The huge public reaction to Sarah Everard’s murder has strengthened resolve to protect women’s rights and do more to prevent violence against women and girls. The public consultation  on this issue has recently closed and on 21 July the government signalled its intention to take action in relation to harassment on the streets. It does seem that change is coming so this is definitely a moment for organisations to embrace what can be done to really tackle inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

We know many employers are already taking steps to look at new ways to improve equality and diversity in their organisations. This is the time to ensure that these new approaches also tackle behaviour.

The traditional method has been to have good policies and procedures in place (that are regularly reviewed) and ensure everyone receives training. However, do your people really understand what is and is not acceptable and does that training really happen? Even if it does, is it appropriate for your organisation and does it really change behaviour?

               ‘do your people really understand what is and is not acceptable….?’

Within HR, it can seem overwhelming to think about how to take a new approach and really address these issues – it can feel like a huge project to undertake. Whilst we don’t believe this will be easy, we’re really encouraging organisations to at least do one thing to get started.

We recently attended a session with Sadia Salam  and Jenny Garrett  – How to talk about race at work. A panel of specialists encouraged us to take action, be courageous, engage with our values and start talking. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, sometimes the discussions may feel uncomfortable, but if we don’t start talking there really can’t be any progress. We believe this applies to all aspects of diversity and inclusion, including acceptable behaviour at work.

               ‘be courageous, engage with your values and start talking’

…. and don’t let unconscious bias be an excuse.

Practical ideas

There is considerable guidance available for HR professionals and also technical guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on harassment at work , together with the 7 step approach recommended in the employer guide . These provide some really important structural and practical steps to take.

However, putting it into practice needs to actively involve the people in your organisation. For your people to learn and make real changes, it’s crucial that they engage in the process. So, the steps taken need to be human, and reflect the values and culture of your organisation. By considering all forms of harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, there could be greater employee engagement and wider benefits too.

               ‘Make time to sit down with your people…’

Some things will work and some won’t, but the key thing is making a start – action is required. We hope to learn over the coming months about different approaches that have been taken, what has worked and what hasn’t, but for now here are our key thoughts (in addition to the EHRC recommended steps):

  • It’s important for the organisation’s leaders to carry out an honest and open review of systems and processes and consider how these might be an enabler or a blocker to a diverse and inclusive workplace – find a way to get feedback from everyone.
  • Review your code of conduct, in a consultative way. Make time to sit down with your people and review that code with them, asking them what works in practice and what doesn’t. Listen to what they have to say about the behaviours they would like to see change.
  • Use a “restorative” approach – have an open mind, really listen to what the issues are in your organisation, how your people are feeling and what they need to see happen for the organisation to create a more inclusive environment.
  • Does everyone in your organisation truly understand what is acceptable – have some discussions about what is and is not acceptable and why. A BBC programme  in 2019 brought together 20 people between the ages of 18-30 to see if they understood the rules around behaviour in the workplace – many of the reactions were surprising and may indicate the extent of the problem organisations are managing. In contrast we hear of employees being afraid to say or do anything at all for fear of getting it wrong, which isn’t good for workplace collaboration. Open discussions with both sides learning how the other feels about a situation will help to build better understanding and relationships between work colleagues.
  • Look to your values – if your current culture and actions around inclusion and diversity do not truly reflect your values, let the values drive you and the actions you take.

            ‘empower all employees …. to call out
            inappropriate behaviour when they see it’

  • Have a system that empowers all employees throughout the organisation to call out inappropriate behaviour when they see it. Not by reaching for the grievance procedure but by having a respectful adult to adult conversation at the moment that it happens.
  • Have conversations around culture – one suggestion was that each team member bring in something that represents them and their culture, and talk about it. It’s about creating a safe space, allowing storytelling and understanding. The meetings could be casual, scheduled, or in a different location – ask people what they would prefer.
  • Back up any agreed action with monitoring, reward and sanction within your systems.
  • Consider appointing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion champions across the organisation.

Set the context – There are some really helpful short video clips online that might help start the discussion:

John Amaechi on ‘Non-racist v anti-racist’

Jon Amaechi on ‘The Truth about Diversity and Inclusion’

When listening to the panel discussion about race, one of the speakers, Sadia Salem said ‘organisations can be diverse, but they have to activate that, you need to be able to talk about race”. Apply that to all aspects of diversity – think about how you might ‘activate’ the discussion within your organisation. Start creating safe spaces to have open conversations, some may be uncomfortable, if so acknowledge that, but start speaking and really listening.

Our comment

Are your current systems, processes and culture allowing people to behave inappropriately? If so, do something now to change that for the better. It will help to provide a defence under the current law and prepare for any new legal duty in the future to prevent harassment in the workplace. In doing so, you may also take some significant steps towards creating a truly diverse and inclusive culture.