How to manage and report sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment is an issue that is apparent across all industries. There is no simple answer to how to manage the issue, but there are strategies and tactics that are proven to contribute to positive culture change, and create an environment that not only helps to prevent the issue but ensures that you know how to effectively manage the situation, should it arise.

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature and is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. According to the law, it’s sexual harassment if the conduct violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

One of the key challenges in tackling sexual harassment in the workplace is the fact that most cases go unreported. How do you address an issue if you don’t know where, how or how frequently it manifests? Stigma, fear, and lack of process are some of the barriers to reporting we’re aware of, but understanding these and the barriers particularly relevant to your organisation is vital to knowing how to handle harassment reports and encouraging a speak-up culture in the workplace.

Read on to understand more about:

Why victims of sexual harassment in the workplace don’t speak up

There isn’t a simple answer to why victim-survivors don’t speak up.

In the UK, one in six incidents still goes unreported. Although reasons vary, the most common reasons for not speaking up cluster around four main themes: 

  1. Lack of trust in HR: The individual doesn’t trust HR because HR works for management and could report to the abuser.
  2. Fear of repercussion: The individual feels they have something too big to lose. By reporting, they fear it will prevent them from achieving their career aspirations. As they can’t afford to lose their income, they choose not to report the incident.
  3. Negative corporate cultures: The company culture doesn’t encourage speaking up. When CEOs exhibit inappropriate behaviour, victim-survivors can only assume or are told it's normal or appropriate behaviour. 
  4. Nothing will be done: HR doesn’t tackle reports appropriately. When incidents are reported, HR turns victim-survivors away or tells them they’re overreacting. In turn, this means any further incidents won’t be reported.

If you feel employees are nervous about speaking out, read this blog. It dives deeper into the issue and offers advice on what you can do in your HR role to help victim-survivors speak up.

How to encourage a speak-up culture

Workplace harassment not only impacts employee well-being, but it can reduce productivity and quality of work, costing businesses thousands of pounds every year. It’s business-critical then that you can cultivate a speak-up culture that enables managers to tackle problems when they occur.

Here are 6 key steps that can help you to encourage a speak-up culture in your organisation:

1. Get rid of a zero-tolerance policy

Zero-tolerance policies are widely adopted but oftentimes can have a detrimental effect on encouraging harassment reports. Research shows that most victims of bullying don’t want job loss to be the consequence of a report of bullying, they just want the bullying to stop. 

Adopting remediation policies and following through with action can be a far more effective way of ensuring staff are certain you’re serious about removing harassment.

2. Prevent retaliation

If an employee sees their coworker experiencing retaliation after reporting an incident or concern, they’re less likely to come forward themselves. Retaliation takes many forms; a supervisor removing an employee from a project, having hours cut or pay cuts. Fear of retaliation can damage workplace culture and force employees to hold back from speaking up.

3. Gather data about reporting

If your organisation is already conveying to staff that speaking up is encouraged, but you rarely find your employees speak up about wrongful conduct, one of the best things you can do is assess why. Understanding the barriers to reporting will help you to understand if people aren’t speaking up because of a lack of awareness of anti-bullying policies or because of something else. 

After gathering this information, you can make the necessary changes to encourage and cultivate a speak-up culture.

4. Be transparent

A report from the Trade Union Congress found that 4 out of 5 women did not report sexual harassment incidences. A key reason for non-disclosure is the belief that nothing will be done. This makes transparency vital. Reports and investigations into cases that are reported should be shared, and follow up meetings held to keep relevant parties informed on outcomes. This is a fundamental action in building trust and encouraging a speak-up culture. 

5. Invest in anonymous reporting software

Reporting an incident can be a daunting task for anyone, so the process needs to be as simple as possible. A long-winded process with paper forms may turn people away and a formal face-to-face reporting process may also have the same result as it requires a lot of courage to speak up. By investing in anonymous reporting software, employees will be empowered to speak up. 

It's normal to assume implementing software won't work, but this couldn't be further from the truth. In this blog, you'll learn why anonymous reporting is so important and common myths we dispel.

6. Implement an efficient reporting process

Reporting harassment requires the victim-survivor to relive the trauma of their experience. If a reporting process is long-winded and filled with paperwork, employees are less likely to report. That’s why it’s vital employers streamline the process, and make sure employees know what to expect. 

To do this, make sure all new employees are told the process within their first week and that this message is cascaded throughout the business frequently, and using the most effective communication means at your disposal. 

To learn more about implementing strategies to encourage a speak-up culture, read our blog on the topic. Or to gain insight into anonymous reporting processes, listen to this webinar.

How to tackle a claim of sexual harassment

We wrote a blog on handling complaints that gives you a lot of insight into how to take a survivor-centred approach to complaints management that is fair and effective. 

The basic principles of this are:

Believe: The first requirement is that you take any complaint of sexual harassment seriously. Not only as a legal requirement but as an important step towards ending the silence of victim-survivors.You should think carefully about how you handle a complaint, ensuring you do so fairly, sensitively and following the correct procedures.

Victim-survivors can face many barriers when reporting sexual harassment in the workplace, which means this behaviour often goes unreported.

Support: Supporting someone in making a complaint goes beyond following a process. It’s important that you don’t allow your own opinion to influence the situation or dismiss a person’s concern. For example, if you’re close to the person accused of sexual harassment or if you simply don’t believe they’re capable of the claim against them, acknowledge your bias and consider how the case should best be handled. You shouldn’t let this view influence how you handle the situation. 

It’s also essential to understand that although you may not find an incident offensive or unwanted, it may have a very different effect on someone else. Most importantly, you mustn’t ignore or cover up sexual harassment or complaints. 

Educate: Ensure your team is aware of the complaint process when they join the organisation and when a complaint occurs, handle it as quickly as possible. Investing in training is another effective way to ensure claims are handled correctly. For anti-harassment policies to work, employees must understand what harassment is.

Investing in training about what sexual harassment in the workplace looks like, what employees should do if they experience it and how to handle any harassment complaints, will all work alongside your policy in reducing workplace harassment. 

How does anonymous reporting encourage victim-survivors to speak up?

According to a survey conducted by Prospect, more than a third of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, rising to two-thirds of women under age 30. 

Reporting sexual harassment in the workplace can be a daunting task for victim-survivors, so the process needs to be as easy as possible. A long, complicated reporting process may turn people away, causing incidents to go unreported. Also, there’s evidence to suggest that being forced to attach their name to a report puts off over 50% of people who have experienced something from reporting it.

A reporting software enables your team to raise issues directly to you through a safe and secure online platform. When unacceptable behaviour occurs in your organisation, reporting software gives employees a place to speak out confidentially. This is especially effective with the option for anonymity if the reporter wishes to remain anonymous.

To learn more about the effectiveness of anonymous reporting software, read this blog.

The pros of reporting and speak-up cultures

Many organisations feel a reporting tool would do more harm than good, with fears they may receive too many reports they can’t address due to lack of information or resource.

However, universities that implemented reporting found it had the opposite effect. They received a manageable number of reports and were able to implement real change. The same can be said for the workplace.

For employees choosing to report and not doing so anonymously, you can work to effectively support your staff in their most vulnerable moments. 

Anonymous reports help you to be better tuned into the culture of your work environment, and combining findings from anonymous reports with culture audits allows you to create changes that can help prevent future cases and more costly resolutions. Anonymous reporting allows employees to feel less vulnerable and more confident as their name won’t be attached to the incident. Ultimately, this supports a speak-up culture.

Anonymous reporting encourages issues to be dealt with internally, rather than an employee going to review sites or the police. This means businesses address issues quickly while also protecting their reputation, culture and employees.

Another big advantage of using anonymous incident reporting software is you can ensure every report gets the attention it deserves and doesn't slip through the cracks. With manual methods, it’s easy for complaints not to be followed up appropriately and employees can quickly lose trust.

To learn more about the pros of anonymous reporting software, read this blog.

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