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Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace

From the casting couch to the wolf whistle, sexual harassment at work has been with us for a very long time. No sector is immune: entertainment, media, professional and financial services, politics, charity and the health sector have all revealed institutional problems in recent times.

Studies on sexual harassment in the workplace estimate that anywhere from a quarter to four-fifths of women experience it at some point. And yet, what were once cultural norms are now being challenged – as illustrated by the global MeToo movement.

So, what is your workplace doing to create change?

Why does sexual harassment and discrimination still happen when there are laws to stop it?

The issue is a complex one, but subjective perception is a significant element. Take Virgin’s recent announcement as an example.

How did you react to the recent news about Virgin Atlantic dropping its rules on female staff having to wear makeup on duty? Did you simply pass over it – or think it a bad decision? Did you celebrate it as another small victory for women’s rights, or were you surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner? Maybe you were angry that there are airlines out there still enforcing these outdated rules, or you can’t understand what the fuss is about?

Ask this question to a dozen people and you will get a diverse mix of reactions. Amplify this tiny example to the wider workplace, where we’re confronted with a far greater range of perceptions and ideas, and you can appreciate just how complex attitudes can be.

Anyone involved in people management has to tackle this problem head on

Some of the big problems around harassment centre on power dynamics and how groups behave.
Psychological studies have shown that power has a profound effect on the way we perceive the world around us, including an ability to infer sexual interest that isn’t there.

In a study undertaken by a US management academic Pamela Smith, she and her colleagues found that power is nonconscious — it affects our thinking and behaviour without us knowing it.

If a workplace has gender or power imbalances, this can trigger deep-seated problems, especially if leaders don’t feel the need to comply with the rules given out to their juniors.

What makes matters worse is the way humans behave in groups. Many psychological studies have shown how individuals respond when they witness incidents like workplace bullying, and revealed the bystander effect – in which the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in a critical event.

Furthermore, if you’ve got a problem with sexual harassment in your business, it’s almost inevitable there will be others too, as sexual harassment often intersects with bullying around sexual orientation, age, disability or race.

Respectful workplaces make business sense

If you’re involved in people management, then you need to know that there is a compelling business case for stopping and preventing sexual harassment. Studies of women who have been harassed reveal that they are 6.5 times more likely to change jobs.

Another study found that one in six employees who experienced sexual harassment took sick or annual leave after it. Such discrimination in the workplace costs the UK economy £127bn in lost output each year, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

The bottom line is: safe and respectful workplaces are more productive, more profitable places to work.

What can training achieve?

While cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, there are some steps L&D professionals can immediately take to ensure their staff are equipped to handle difficult situations confidently, and to amplify the existing policies you already have in place.

Through educating employees about the ground rules and empowering them to act accordingly, you will be taking positive, practical steps to foster a healthier workplace – and keep your company out of the headlines and away from the courts.

5 steps to deal with sexual harassment

1. Understand unwanted behaviour

Are your employees aware of the issue of respect in the workplace? Do they recognise that what is acceptable to one person may be unacceptable to another? The intention of the perpetrator is not the issue here. It’s the perception of the recipient that matters.  You can read about this and the affect of unwanted behaviour in one of our earlier blogs.

2. Know the law

Sexist behaviour is more than an “ism” – it is defined in law. Do employees understand the legal position, the sorts of cases that go to court, and your own company’s position on it?

3. Understand reporting mechanisms

Any training should remind individuals of your company’s reporting policies and procedures. They need to feel empowered to take action, whether as a victim or witness. Does your workplace have clear signposting in place – and does your company take steps to ensure people feel comfortable enough to come forward? Managers need to expect reporting levels to increase initially, before reducing over time.

4. Deal with consequences

If a report is made, how does management deal with it? How does your company respond to the actions taken and what support does the victim, witness and accused receive?

5. Change behaviours

Intervention training can be very effective at breaking the cycle of learned behaviours, particularly if the company culture is challenging or resistant. Offering tools and techniques will help. Focus on the positive behaviour you want to see and the actions everyone can take to challenge unwanted behaviour. It needs to be understood that everyone must be prepared to change, including those at the very top.

We believe that training that aims to stop and prevent sexual harassment works best when it focuses on what people should be doing rather than on what they shouldn’t. Find out more by taking a look at our new course Respect at work and updated course Diversity and inclusion.

BiteSize Learning’s courses offer short, practical training on a range of interventions to help leaders and co-workers with professional behaviour. If you’d like to know more please contact Paul or Rob on 0845 123 3757.

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