Business woman (9)

Often dismissed as a bit of banter or simply a joke, sexual harassment within the workplace is a harsh reality for those who experience it.

Although both males and females can experience sexual harassment at work, 79% of victims are women, according to the Association of Women for Action and Research.

The extent of the problem was highlighted earlier this week with a report by the Trade Union Congress, which found over half of women (52%) had been subject to some sort of sexual harassment at work.

Almost one quarter of the 1,500 women who took part in the survey said they had experienced unwanted touching at work and 28% of women have been subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes.

However, most of women felt they could not report it in fear it would affect their relationships at work or they wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Although sexual harassment may not seem obvious to others, it can take place in many forms, including indecent or suggestive remarks, unwelcome and inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing and requests for sexual favours.

Nic Hammarling, head of diversity at Pearn Kandola, said: “Perhaps one of the most depressing things about sexism in the workplace is that it only gets worse.

“Employers should note that having a policy on sexual harassment is not enough. Likewise, putting up posters about a zero-tolerance approach to harassment is not enough”.

Ms Hammarling outlines six key things employers should do to stop sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Start at the top
Leaders need to highlight that they personally have no time for people who act inappropriately at work. If the problem stems from the top, then that problem has to be addressed with some frank feedback.
  • Educate yourself on behaviours
Employees need to be educated on when a certain type of behaviour is inappropriate. It may seem obvious that their behaviour is a step too far, but in a surprising majority of cases, they have no idea that it is causing such distress.
  • Be vigilant
Encourage employees to call out any bad behaviour. Managers have a key role to play here, but so do bystanders who are aware of it going on, even if they’re not actively involved. The vast majority of these witnesses stay silent, but in fact in many instances they can be the most powerful advocates for change when they step in and challenge the behaviour.
  • Understand your employees
Help people understand how they can best challenge their colleagues. There is a lot of psychology behind effective challenging, and it doesn’t have to be direct, in-your-face confrontation. Sometimes, subtle challenges – even the use of silence after someone has said something, will help realisation to dawn.
  • Take it seriously
If an employee informs you that there’s a bit of potentially unwanted sexual ‘banter’ going on, don’t ignore it and don’t put it down to horseplay. It could well be a sign of something more serious.
  • Put a stop to it
Nip it in the bud. The quicker these things are dealt with, the less painful they are for everyone.

What can individuals do if they are experiencing sexual harassment?

  • Take Note
It’s not a good idea to wait until the person who’s harassing you goes too far, or until you can’t take any more because it’s become so endemic in your working culture. If things are happening that make you feel uncomfortable then it is best to make a note of them – and be very specific with dates and times.
  • Confront the perpetrator
If it’s behaviour from just one person, you need to make them aware that what they’re doing is not ok. This can be daunting but the calmer you can stay in this discussion, and the clearer your examples are, the better it will be.

If lots of people around you are behaving inappropriately, then this is more of a question of culture change in the workplace. If you’re strong-willed and happy to deal with potential difficulties, then go challenge the culture directly. If you’re a little unsure, then find some help.

  • Ask for support
Go to someone whose integrity you trust, tell them what’s been going on, and ask for their support.