Having exposed the level of harassment endured by women in all fields of work and life, the #MeToo campaign looks like the defining movement of 2017 and employers can’t ignore it.
While initially allegations of harassment came from the entertainment industry, the personal accounts of individuals, shared on social media, demonstrated that sexual harassment appears prevalent throughout most industries.
A BBC Radio 5 Live survey found that 53 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men had experienced sexual harassment at work. However, most said that they did not report the conduct. That is of concern in relation to the impact on the individuals; but employers are surely also being hit by consequent sickness absences, lack of productivity and attrition rates linked to such behaviour.
Most employers have a grievance policy that refers to harassment. Some employers will have specific harassment or dignity at work policies. However, in order to properly address harassment, employers have to develop a culture of transparency and accountability: that means demonstrating that they are not just paying lip service to these issues. Instead, they must ensure that any issues are dealt with robustly and with sensitivity.
Employers should consider introducing a confidential helpline where inappropriate conduct can be reported on an anonymous basis. They also need to demonstrate that any concerns are actioned, and that the complainer is not disadvantaged in the process. Someone alleging harassment should not become a focus of further detrimental treatment, either because of the way any investigation is conducted or because the matter becomes widely known and employees take sides
Training is crucial to set the correct tone and also to ensure that all staff are aware of the standards expected. It is notable that many people have said that they are now worried about whether their own conduct has been inappropriate in the past. While sexual harassment has never been appropriate in any situation, and the law has been clear on what constitutes sexual harassment for many years, it is fair to say that some people are more able to assess the impact of their behaviour on their colleagues than others.
Training should, therefore, be mandatory. Senior staff, including key executives, should be taking part in the same training as all employees, although there may be additional training for managers too. It must be clear that there are standards of behaviour, which are expected of everyone, however senior in an organisation, and that there is always someone to go to with concerns.
It is also important for training to be in person rather than online. While this is likely to incur significant cost for employers, by discussing issues and scenarios and challenging views of acceptable behaviour, an open and transparent culture is more likely to be fostered. Online training can supplement group training, but is unlikely to be sufficient to address any cultural issues.
Usually, those employees who are subject to harassment just want it to stop. They simply want to get on with their jobs in an environment in which they feel safe. Therefore, businesses should have informal methods of addressing issues, as well as those that are more formal. People subjected to harassment do not usually want to be the cause of someone else losing their job or being otherwise disciplined.
Often policies and procedures in place put pressure on an individual who is already feeling vulnerable to prove harassment. Consideration should be given to reviewing policies to ensure that this is not the case, and that it is the employer who is responsible for progressing matters.
There is always a balance to be struck between ensuring that anyone accused of harassment has a fair hearing and putting unnecessary pressure on those alleging inappropriate treatment. However, an employer must recognise that there are particular sensitivities in such cases, which should ensure that protection from retaliation is given to the person making such allegations.
Large employers should consider whether external resources could be used for dealing with such complaints, to make it more likely that confidentiality is maintained and that employees feel able to make allegations.
It is unlikely that this issue will go away in 2018 and employers should consider how best to build a culture where employees feel able to raise concerns.
Amanda Jones is a partner in Dentons’ employment team