Tackling Workplace Sexual Harassment

8th September 2023

Article by Meg Shona Halpin-Webster, Graduate eLearning Content Writer at Marshall E-Learning Consultancy, a Ciphr company

Spain’s victorious triumph at the 2023 Women’s World Cup has unfortunately been marred with controversy as a result of the inappropriate behaviour of Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish football federation. Rubiales’ actions have kickstarted important conversations about sexual harassment and the necessity of tackling inappropriate sexual conduct within the workplace.

Across the UK, it’s unsettling to acknowledge that one in five UK workers experienced a form of sexual harassment within their workplaces in 2021-22. This data suggests that the equivalent of 1.5 million people a year are victims of sexual harassment – an alarming signal of the scale of sexual harassment in UK workplaces. The Equality and Human Rights Commission determined that almost half of the instances of sexual harassment included in this data were met with no action from employers. This needs to change. There needs to be stronger sexual harassment policies and procedures in place to protect employees.

Marshalls is determined to improve workplace cultures through relevant and informative elearning courses. Marshalls is committed to empowering organisations and institutions with the knowledge and resources to effectively combat sexual harassment in these environments and ensure that employees feel safe, which is why we want to reinforce the importance of a strong sexual harassment policy to eradicate this issue.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is one of the three types of harassment set out in the Equality Act 2010. Typically, people have a narrow view of what constitutes sexual harassment, with many assuming that it is inappropriate physical behaviour. However, the actual definition, as clarified by the Equality and Human Rights Commission Equality Act Employment Code, includes much more than physical behaviour, and includes the following:

  • Unwelcome spoken and/or written words relating to sex
  • Overtly sexual graffiti and imagery, including pictures and drawings
  • Derogatory mimicry of an individual or a group of individuals
  • Inappropriate physical gestures, such as hand movements
  • Inappropriate jokes about sex or sexuality
  • Facial expressions, which are either inappropriately suggestive or suggest contempt
  • Inappropriate physical behaviour, such as unwanted close proximity and unwelcome touch
  • Disrespectful pranks centered on someone’s sex or pranks that compromise an individual’s dignity

In simple terms, any behaviour that is unwanted, or related to an individual’s sex and impacts their dignity and personal safety, constitutes sexual harassment. Even today, there continues to be misunderstandings in relation to sexual harassment within a workplace environment. For example, consider the phrase ‘workplace banter’ – this is a term that is still frequently used to excuse inappropriate workplace behaviour, such as sexual jokes.

It’s important to highlight that sexual harassment does not have to be a series of events to qualify – it can be a single event. In some cases, yes, sexual harassment comprises a series of different events of the same nature, but a serious or extreme singular event can still be considered sexual harassment. For example, an extreme singular event of unwanted, inappropriate touching constitutes sexual harassment, even if it only happened once. It is also essential to acknowledge that people of any gender identity or sexual orientation can experience sexual harassment in their workplaces.

What is the current legislation in place?

As briefly mentioned, sexual harassment is one of the three types of harassment set out in the Equality Act 2010. This act’s definition of harassment is as follows:

“Unwanted conduct related to a Protected Characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”

Under this legislation, individuals are protected against sexual harassment and also protected from victimisation if they come forward with a complaint or grievance related to sexual harassment that they have themselves experienced or witnessed.

How managers can proactively take action to combat sexual harassment at work

As a manager, it is your responsibility to proactively ensure that any employees within your team or wider department are not subjected to any form of sexual harassment. It’s important that managers themselves follow the organisation’s policy and procedures should an incident occur.

If an employee comes to you to report inappropriate behaviour or their personal experience of sexual harassment, it’s essential that you actively listen to their experience, and inform them of the different options in place to address the sexual harassment. You must consider the individual’s desired approach to the situation – for instance, they may not feel comfortable confronting the behaviour. Managers should offer support to the individual throughout the reporting process, because it takes a lot of courage to come forward with a complaint of this nature. Perhaps offer to facilitate or accompany the individual or advise on somebody that is suitable to do so, such as a specialist advisor.

To protect your employees from sexual harassment, there needs to be a concrete policy in place that outlines workplace expectations and the consequences for inappropriate behaviour. It’s a manager’s responsibility to make sure that all employees are aware of the policy and understand the necessary procedures in place.

But what if you don’t have a concrete sexual harassment policy? Below we offer a step-by-step guide to implementing a strong policy.

How to implement a sexual harassment policy

All organisations, regardless of their size or the sector they operate in, should have a robust sexual harassment policy in place to protect all employees. Unfortunately, in many cases, the existence of a sexual harassment policy does not prevent unwanted behaviour from taking place, yet the policy does offer individuals and the organisation a course of action in the event of sexual harassment.

1. Establish a written sexual harassment policy

Writing a sexual harassment policy is essential for prohibiting unwanted and inappropriate behaviour. The written policy needs to detail that sexual harassment is not tolerated under any circumstances within the organisation. A strong policy defines behaviour that constitutes sexual harassment, to ensure that all employees understand what types of behaviour is appropriate within the workplace. You can consider providing examples of such prohibited conduct to ensure the message is clear to employees.

The policy must also outline the procedures employees must follow to report incidents that have either happened to them personally, or that they have witnessed. Given that incidents might involve or concern, for example, line managers or senior managers, there should be several avenues for reporting incidents or misconduct.

Your sexual harassment policy – and communications around it – should reassure employees that all complaints will be handled confidentially and guarantee that an individual who comes forward will not face any adverse consequences in relation to their job position or career. A strong policy should clarify the consequences for those that do engage in unwanted sexual conduct, and explain that they will face disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.

Once you have established a written sexual harassment policy, it needs to be accessible to employees. Consider including the policy in your employee handbook, or include it in the policies section of your HR system, and make sure all new and existing employees have read and accepted the policy, and can refer back to it if an incident occurs.

2. Communicate the policy regularly

A strong sexual harassment policy must be regularly communicated to employees to maintain awareness. It’s important that all employees remain aware of the policy and procedures in place so that they feel protected if they need to come forward with a complaint. You can clearly communicate a sexual harassment policy by running regular presentations, recapping the core information around the policy and what employees and managers should do in the event of sexual harassment.

Discussing the policy does not always have to be formal; informal conversations between managers and their teams may prove valuable to encourage an employee to come forward about their experiences.

3. Conduct sexual harassment training

Training is a valuable avenue to ensure that all employees are aware of the sexual harassment policy and procedures in place for your organisation. Through making sexual harassment training mandatory for all employees, you are securing awareness of the expected behaviours and conduct across your organisation. Consider both in-person or online training for your employees in this area.

To cement employee understanding, follow the training with in-depth discussions about learnings from the training. Be sure to invite questions about the organisation’s policy and the training in place so that employees feel secure in their understanding and feel protected by their workplace. As a manager, or a member of leadership, encourage and motivate employees by positively responding to those who are helping to prevent sexual harassment within their organisation through active participation in training and discussions.

How Marshalls can help you maintain awareness of your sexual harassment policy

Here at Marshalls, we offer an accessible and informative Sexual harassment elearning course. This e-learning course aims to empower staff members with the knowledge and tools that they need to navigate the topic of sexual harassment, while also helping organisations cultivate a safe workplace environment that is free from sexual harassment. Throughout our course, learners will develop their understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and the legislation around it and the necessary steps to take following an incident.

Available both off-the-shelf and as a bespoke, customised e-learning course, tailored to your organisation and its unique policies, our sexual harassment training is hugely advantageous for your organisation and those within it. To find out more about our sexual harassment course and how you can use it, get in touch to determine how we can meet your organisation’s needs.

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