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Male bosses avoid being alone with women at work

Caroline Philipps & Nick Tsatsas

The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is very much in the news, following recent revelations about the mistreatment of women (in particular) in Hollywood, and now in the world of politics. Contributor Caroline Philipps, Associate, and Nick Tsatsas, Partner, are members of Fladgate LLP’s employment team.

However, this type of behaviour does not just occur in high-profile industries. Indeed, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has reported that a third of women in Britain have been subjected to unwelcome jokes and sexual comment. The extent to which such behaviour continues to pervade the workplace, and the fact that perpetrators appear to have continued to get away with it until now, mean the subject must be addressed with renewed vigour.

Nevertheless, one unintended consequence of the recent media coverage and social debate is that some men are becoming increasingly nervous that their interactions with women at work risk being misinterpreted. Male workers are sensitive to the fact that having one-to-one meetings with female colleagues – whether in a professional or social context – may lead to gossip or, worse, allegations of unwanted attention and harassment. Some senior male professionals have admitted that this has resulted in them limiting their interaction with female colleagues which, in turn, may result in those women missing out on opportunities to progress and develop their careers. Efforts to break down the workplace “boys’ clubs” mentality would appear to be unravelling, as men view interacting predominantly with other men as a “safer” bet.

Legislation and education have contributed greatly to the improvement of gender equality and respect at work. What a sad step backwards it will be if the current focus on harassment prompts a regression to a more timid and segregated working environment. So what can be done to help strike the right balance at work, so as to ensure that women feel safe and enjoy an environment free from harassment, whilst remaining as much a part of the team as their male colleagues?

Most employers already conduct training in diversity and inclusion, which covers how to identify the types of behaviour that may cause women to feel harassed and how to prevent it. Often this type of training focuses on “don’ts”: don’t hang offensive posters on the wall, don’t make inappropriate comments about a woman’s appearance, etc. But these types of workplace harassment are obvious to many responsible, conscientious workers, who know very well that these types of behaviour are unacceptable.

The issues facing workers in modern, progressive businesses are more nuanced and the training offered to them needs to reflect a more unconscious bias that may exist. Such training should also place a greater emphasis on what the desired workplace culture should be and look like.

Another way in which employers can guard against the risk that women may be excluded out of a fear not to offend, is to encourage and facilitate group (as opposed to one-on-one) interaction. Needless to say, harassment can occur in a group context as well, but its occurrence may be more limited, and it may be easier to “call out” and police. The hope is also that, in an inclusive environment of this type, the “power” imbalance which is so often a feature of harassment is less likely to arise.

Finally, it is crucial to establish a safe and clear process via which allegations of harassment can be raised, investigated and acted upon.

A central feature of the recent allegations regarding workplace harassment has been the belief of many victims that complaints will not be treated seriously, and will more likely be covered up. Therefore, businesses should ensure that they have clear, easily accessible policies on harassment and how to raise a concern in relation to the same. Complaints should be taken seriously and handled confidentiality and promptly. Consideration should be given to the establishment of independent complaints “hotlines”. If a member of staff has committed an act of harassment, then appropriate disciplinary action should be taken. Businesses should also consider offering external support or counselling. This is especially important as the effects of harassment cannot always be resolved and forgotten about.

Encouraging an open, educated and supportive environment will go a long way to achieving an inclusive workplace, and the establishment of such a culture inevitably starts at the top.  A failure by senior management to commit to treating all staff with dignity and respect is likely to be indicative of a business in which inequality and harassment are present – and perhaps even endemic. The repercussions of that could be severe, as the considerable reputational and financial damage to the high-profile individuals currently being accused of harassment, and the organisations that “turned a blind eye” to their actions, demonstrates.

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