Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace post #MeToo

by Helen Mahy

Published: 15 Jan 2020

Not every New Year resolution will change the world, but I am hopeful that mine will make some small difference. I have pledged to use my voice to tackle harassment in the workplace.

I am fortunate that the companies I currently work for or closely with have good corporate cultures where speaking up is championed and harassment is not tolerated. However, even in companies which have civilised cultures, people can still sometimes behave unacceptably. I also know that it can be very uncomfortable to tell senior people that their behaviours are not what they should be. 

I have pledged that, if I see or become aware of harassment in the organisations where I work - be that in the boardroom or outside of it - I will speak out and do something about it.  And I would call on my fellow business leaders to do the same. 

The #MeToo movement gave brave people a platform to share their accounts of sexual harassment.

It is high time employers now took responsibility to protect all their workers (men as well as women) from harassment happening in the first place.

Toxic workplaces are bad for workers and bad for business. Not only that, but all employers regardless of size or sector have a legal duty to make sure they have taken reasonable steps to protect their workers from harassment. Figuring out how to do this can be a challenge.

This is why today the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published new guidance that explains employers’ legal responsibilities when it comes to harassment of workers and offers practical examples of steps that can be taken now to prevent and respond to it. The guidance has been developed in consultation with business, HR experts, women’s rights organisations and trade unions to make sure that the examples are rooted in real-world experiences. But guidance can only go so far and what we now need is for all of us to collectively use our clout to take this issue seriously. Only when people at the top of an organisation show their commitment to this, will we be able to set the tone and build confidence that issues won’t be brushed under the carpet. That is why I have made my pledge and why I call on other senior business leaders to do the same.

Some employers are already making a number of changes to improve their culture as we learned at a recent employer event I hosted with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It was encouraging to hear forward thinking employers trying things such as:

  • spotting potential risks and putting in place mitigations before they can happen
  • bystander training for witnesses to support victims
  • introducing anonymous online reporting systems
  • making senior leaders responsible for the monitoring of harassment as part of board reporting.

I was motivated to hear HR leads say that they needed board-level support to really get these initiatives moving and make a difference for their staff and business.

We have also been working with the hospitality sector where sexual harassment is particularly rife and look forward to sharing our insights about what steps are most effective later in the year.

If you are grappling with this or unsure where to start, I’d suggest you read our short guide that offers 7 clear steps on how to prevent and tackle harassment. For more in-depth explanations and advice, read our full technical guidance.

Finally, we are hopeful that the Government will strength the law around harassment by introducing a new duty on employers that requires them to take steps to prevent harassment before it starts. Until such time, we urge leaders to get ahead and adopt this guidance now before it becomes a statutory code of practice. Many of Britain’s most progressive employers are already doing this so what are you waiting for?