Recent surveys suggest that around half of British women and a fifth of British men have experienced sexual harassment in a work or academic environment.
The issue has seen extensive amplification through high profile legal cases, social media campaigns and national media headlines.
With recognition of the problem at heightened levels, organisations need to examine its existence and nature within workplaces – and the effect it has on the employees within them.
Economic and hidden costs
There is a huge cost attached to sexual harassment. From a productivity perspective it’s widely acknowledged that sexual harassment has a detrimental effect on morale, employee performance, absenteeism, workplace culture and the ability to retain the most talented staff.
And there’s also a quantifiable economic impact. A recent US government Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report found that since 2010 employers have paid around $699 million to employees, claiming that they were harassed due to their sex, race, disability, age, ethnicity, colour or religion.
With inclusivity growing as a key operations objective over recent years, businesses are now realising the importance of managing workplace sexual harassment within this wider goal. Many have established basic policies for recording instances of workplace harassment, for example, and most have improved the related document protocols.
But while some have made solid progress in incorporating the wider wellbeing considerations of their employees into their broad workplace objectives, many still struggle with implementing effective change around sexual harassment itself.
So why is this? And how can businesses manage and combat the problem?
According to research, 70% of people that experience sexual harassment don’t report it. This is often due to fear of retaliation and the fact that harassment conversations with managers are also rare. To compound the problem, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) often create further obstacles to transparency, with victims feeling confused as to what they can and can’t disclose.
The economic costs of the issue are far easier to define than the hidden ones for this reason. The problem remains largely under-reported due to a lack of information, and employees are often unaware of the formal processes of reporting incidents.
Providing a voice
It’s vital for employers to ensure their staff can be heard in as comfortable and non-invasive way as possible. Some companies focus on silencing victims to avoid financial repercussions but employees should be encouraged to vocalise issues like sexual harassment in pursuit of
An effective route to stimulating this culture is deploying the correct reporting technologies and policies to allow them to do so. Certain technological advances are already helping organisations to reduce sexual harassment, by enabling companies to empower their employees to speak out. These can provide user-friendly channels for staff to safely and securely report misconduct with minimal exposure.
Such anonymous reporting tools are becoming widely available. The best provide secure, encrypted forms of communication to a designated company representative by, for example, clicking on an anonymous reporting button that carries them to an encrypted service with no data storage involved. This provides employees with a confidential route to report incidents and use a scrambled email address for completely confidential correspondence. Technology can ease the initial reporting stage, of course, but the next step lies with the human element.
HR representatives still need an understanding of the difficulties faced by employees suffering sexual harassment to address the problem sufficiently and provide a trustworthy safety net.
Establishing an open workplace culture
HR teams can also address sexual harassment through promoting an all-inclusive culture that ensures harassment cases are handled quickly, effectively and empathetically.
All businesses must now take a clear and vocal approach to prevent sexual harassment incidents in the workplace. And building up a culture of transparency, safety and respect is key to this. When reporting an issue, employees also need to be assured that they can do so without retaliation and that action will be taken swiftly.
To articulate this effectively, sexual harassment should be clearly defined, through a formal grievance policy, equal opportunities policy, dignity at work policy, anti-harassment policy or equivalent manifesto. This framework should be vocalised throughout the employment period – from the hiring stage, as part of regular internal discussions and with continual reinforcement by those at the director and managerial levels of an organisation.
A comprehensive plan
Evidence of sexual harassment in the world of work is overwhelming as movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have shown.
It’s now vital for organisations to realise its impact on individual workplace performance in pursuit of a more inclusive environment – but they need to work beyond the initial documentation stage. Only by embedding the right culture, encouraging reporting and using technological advances to leverage a voice for employees will they fully meet the challenge.
Most businesses understand that retaining their brightest and best talent means putting their people first. HR now has a great opportunity to create structures that ensure sexual harassment cases are handled effectively and with the empathy they deserve.
About the author
Joel Farrow MD at HR tech platform, Hibob.