Sexual harassment – where does it end?

As a young technician in the 1960s I was aware of significant levels of sexual harassment; from supervisors’ “privileges” to managers whose wives and girlfriends helped them to achieve promotion. Harvey Weinstein, Michael Fallon and others are not alone. If there is an afterlife there must be many men quaking in their graves today. Others still alive may be wondering how deep their pockets are or even how they feel about a spell In prison.

As a Personnel Manager I once attended a conference on sexual harassment and found myself as one of two men among several hundred women! Sexual harassment may not be a one-way street, but from the aggrieved stories I heard it certainly felt so! From being the butt of jokes to pressure for sexual favours, sexual harassment was alive in the second half of the twentieth century (and may be now!).

However, quite appropriately, women (predominantly) are hitting back. The BAE case, settled recently, emphasises how even relatively mild sexist comments (“ women take things more emotionally than men”) can be expensive.

Harassment is now defined in the Equality Act 2010 as: “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”. Protected characteristics include obvious ones such as gender, race, disability and less obvious ones such as transgender.

Where should employers start?

It may seem pat but they should start with themselves. We all use different language in different situations. Most of us (all of us?) use the f word at some time or another but there are many circumstances where we would restrain ourselves. It is that judgement as to what is acceptable and what is not, where and when, that is so important.

So the starting point is to be alert to those around you. If you hold a powerful position the discomfort of others may not be obvious. But setting the example is the starting point.

Create a friendly working environment

This could easily be the subject of an entire blog, so here are only a few suggestions.

Workplace banter is good, so long as it doesn’t cause offence or discomfort. In a group beware of the non-participating individual, they may be the one who is discomforted.

Celebrate success openly and feedback criticism gently.

Encourage rather than stifle social interaction, it has to be proportionate, of course but most people come to work as much for being among others as for pay (although unless they are volunteers they will still want that!).

Consider training

Equal opportunity or diversity training can tick a box or it can be a source of better working relationships. Training should be designed to foster respect and understanding for others.

Have a policy

A bullying and harassment policy can act as a safety valve, trapping inappropriate behaviour before it reaches the Tribunal route. Employees can be reluctant to complain, fearing the harasser is too senior or powerful. Often good employees simply move on elsewhere. So having a simple policy can improve retention, aid a better work environment and reduce the risk of a Court appearance.

Watch for warning signs

A dysfunctional department, poor attendance or a high staff turnover rate often indicate the presence of a bully or harasser. Externally conducted exit interviews can be a source of valuable information. Be prepared to investigate allegations.

Don’t be afraid to discipline

Harassment is a disciplinary offence in anyone’s book, and certainly in our online employee handbooks. Ignoring harassment, because it feels tricky to deal with, only encourages it. Stop it in its tracks.


Where harassment might end in the public arena remains to be played out. But within your own organisation you can bring it to an end.

Malcolm Martin FCIPD

Author Human Resource Practice.

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