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Thursday 26 October 2023

Managing sexual harassment at work

By Josie Irwin

Sexual harassment is against the law, but that doesn’t stop it happening. Josie Irwin offers her tips on recognising sexual harassment in the workplace and how to intervene effectively as a manager.

Woman at desk being touched by male colleague

1. Be aware how common sexual harassment is

In 2019, a UNISON study found that nearly one in ten NHS staff were victims of unwanted behaviour at work, including groping, up-skirting and, most shockingly, rape. A UNISON/Nursing Times survey of nurses in 2021 found that sexual harassment was endemic and staff did not believe enough was being done about it – it had become normalised.

2. Understand what sexual harassment is

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It can be intentional or unintentional. Victims are predominantly women, while the harasser can be a colleague, contractor, client, patient or visitor. Sexual harassment can happen in the workplace – in the office, the canteen or the toilets – at a client’s home, or during conferences, training courses and staff parties. It can also take place online, via social media, or by telephone or text. Some incidents are obvious, while others are subtle and more difficult to recognise.

Experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment can have a devastating impact on people, leading to ill-health and work-related stress which can affect both job performance and personal life. To learn more, read UNISON's guidance on sexual harassment.

3. Be clear about the law

Sexual harassment is illegal. All workers, regardless of length of service, are protected from sexual harassment at work by the Equality Act 2010. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employers must also protect “so far as is reasonably practicable” the health, safety and welfare of their workers – that includes protection from sexual harassment. The Management of Health and Safety Regulations require employers to assess the nature and scale of workplace risks to health and safety, and ensure measures are in place to eliminate these risks, again as far as is reasonably practicable.

4. Having a policy is not enough

UNISON advocates zero tolerance of sexual harassment. That requires more than a statement. It means changes to practice and culture too, and the behaviour of middle and senior managers is particularly important here. Any policy should be promoted by the employer across the whole organisation.

5. Preventing harassment is better than dealing with the consequences

The CIPD advises that people cannot make their best contribution if they’re working in fear of harassment or bullying. As a manager, you should encourage a supportive and inclusive culture, and respect between staff at all levels. Employer-run awareness-raising campaigns, clear and well publicised anti-harassment policies and training for staff at all levels will also help prevent harassment.

6. Training is important for all staff

Research shows that workplace campaigns and training which promote respectful work behaviour, as well as raising awareness of what sexual harassment is, have proved effective. Anyone could be a perpetrator, so training should include everyone in the organisation.   

7. Make sure people feel safe to report it

Research shows that worries about being taken seriously lead many staff to suffer in silence or even quit their jobs, rather than make a complaint to their manager. A workplace environment where reporting is encouraged and complaints are known to be acted on will help deter sexual harassment.

8. Investigate quickly but fairly 

The ACAS guidance is clear: as a manager, you have responsibilities towards the accused perpetrator as well as the complainant. Complaints should be dealt with confidentially and sensitively. Be objective: behaviour you think is acceptable may not be for someone else. Equally, you should not presume the alleged perpetrator is guilty. It's usually very distressing to be accused of sexual harassment.

Handle the complaint as quickly as possible. Tell everyone involved how the investigation will work. An informal approach may be enough to make the harassment stop, especially where it’s unintended. But if the complainant chooses to take formal action their decision must be respected.

9. Don’t ignore historic incidents

Even if the incident happened a long time ago, you should still take it very seriously and deal with it as quickly and effectively as possible. See the ACAS guidance if you need legal advice.

10. Know your employer’s responsibilities

An investigation and disciplinary action to deal with sexual harassment may not be sufficient for employers to avoid legal liability. Employers must also be able to show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment taking place.

  • Josie Irwin is a senior national officer in UNISON’s equality unit.

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