Half of women experience sexual harassment during their career, according to research published by the Trade Unions Congress (Still Just a Bit of Banter? August 2016). And we know from other research that men are targets of sexual harassment at work more often than is typically acknowledged.
The TUC is now calling for urgent action on the issue from employers and to reinstate firm legislation to protect staff from any kind of harassment. In its response, the Government has urged employers to make it clear what’s expected from their employees in terms of everyday behaviour.
The core issue highlighted by the report is workplace banter, the thin line between humour and something inappropriate and threatening. No-one, obviously, wants an employee to feel uncomfortable, belittled or scared. But at the other end of the spectrum – as part of a new culture of fear and suspicion – is a rush of improper behaviour cases, formal complaints against managers by disgruntled staff, more employees turning immediately to their Union for reparations.
And here’s the real problem for HR to interpret, the question that led to bad-tempered debate in the media and online in response to the report: what kinds of behaviour and language actually constitute sexual harassment, when does a compliment or stirrings of romantic feeling become a serious case for recrimination? Details of context, the subtleties of workplace culture and dynamics, the personalities and situations involved, are all critical. Black and white rules and penalties are easy to introduce, but with what results for the long-term?
Companies need to take a hard look at what can at first glance seem inoffensive office banter (good natured humour) but which may in fact be hiding signs of harassment and serious insensitivity. This can only take place where there is a shared culture of honesty and openness within the organisation. Managers must ensure their organisations offer safe places where employees feel able to express genuine concerns when they need to, without being worried about their ‘status’ in relation to others, or what it means for their career. A lack of honesty encourages inappropriate, mindless behaviour to become the norm.
Most organisations have procedures and policies in place to protect employees from unwanted sexual advances, but many companies fail to highlight these to employees. The TUC report has clear recommendations for safeguarding vulnerable staff from harassment – including training all levels of management on what constitutes sexual harassment, stalking and online harassment. It’s an issue where a service like an Employee Assistance Programme comes into its own, an established offering that gives straightforward access to independent expertise and confidentiality.
In many organisations the issue is one of awareness and a perception among employees that an EAP is only used in an emergency or managing a life crisis, when one of its strengths is in giving people an outlet for talking to someone about any kinds of concerns before they can escalate, as more of a coaching service. HR departments and managers should be using their EAP more proactively. In addition, HR should consider what specific kinds of support can be made available to both individual staff – for example, a specialist whistleblowing line which can act as a triage service to help manage cases in the most appropriate way – or something like a managerial advice line to support and educate line managers on the complex issues involved.
Only by building trust in the workplace – not encouraging more fear, more dishonesty – will the underlying issues raised by the TUC ever be properly addressed.