Tackling and preventing sexual harassment

10 May 18

Managers should never ignore suspicions or complaints of sexual harassment. With behavioural grey areas and divisive disciplinary policies, how do you best address them? Mediation consultant David Liddle gives some tips. 

Sexual Harassment Artwork


Sexual harassment is never far from the headlines, with streams of allegations arising across the public, private and charitable sectors.

Government departments have come under scrutiny, with the prime minister calling a cross-party crisis meeting to discuss how best to tackle a culture where inappropriate behaviour appears to be widespread.

What has fast become apparent is that the high-profile cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

Thanks to the #metoo and Time’s Up campaigns, workers in a whole range of sectors are speaking out and we are seeing a long-overdue debate over not just what constitutes acceptable behaviour at work but also wider issues of gender, equality and diversity in the workplace.

Where does this leave managers who may find themselves dealing with allegations of sexual harassment in their teams?

In the best case scenario, they would be getting a strong steer from the organisation.

The reality, however, is that organisations are struggling to tackle the issue. They want to do the right thing but, in many cases, are out of their depth and are tying themselves in moral, ethical and legal knots.

Grey areas

The problem with sexual harassment is that there are many grey areas. Two key issues are at play.

First, people have genuinely become unsure about what appropriate behaviour at work looks like. Some forms of behaviour are clearly unacceptable, but people are finding it hard to know where the line sits between banter or flirting and behaviour that might be deemed inappropriate or even offensive.

This uncertainty is affecting how employees interact. Atmospheres can become tense and constrained. People may feel they are treading on eggshells and a layer of awkwardness is coming into normal everyday interactions between colleagues.

The second issue is that traditional disciplinary and grievance procedures in use in most organisations tend to make matters worse, pushing people into unhelpful confrontations and making it impossible for normal working relationships to ever be resumed.

Clearly, some major cultural shifts need to take place if sexual harassment is to be stamped out – and we need new, more constructive, collaborative approaches to resolving disputes that arise in the workplace.

In the meantime, managers have to do the best they can to create cultures of dignity and respect in their teams and deal efficiently with inappropriate behaviour.

  1. Lead with values

    A strong, values-driven culture is pivotal to organisational success and staff wellbeing. Values also give people clarity about what an organisation believes and what is expected of employees as they go about their work.

    Values are the golden thread that connects people with their organisation. Managers need to make values an integral part of how they manage staff, from the informal conversations they have with their team every day through to more formal performance management processes. They need to make sure staff understand what kind of actions and behaviour support the values and what undermines them.

    Crucially, managers have to lead by example and act as role models. They need to reward people when their actions reflect the values and hold them to account when they do not. It’s no good saying respect and dignity are core values if inappropriate behaviour is allowed to go unchallenged.
  2. Be alert to warning signs

    People are often reluctant to complain about sexual harassment. They fear they will be judged or that others may think they have encouraged it, are lying or are being malicious.

    As a manager, you need to be able to pick up the subtle signals that something is not right. Do members of staff appear reluctant to work with a particular colleague? Is it obvious that a junior member of the team feels uncomfortable with a senior manager? Has a previously upbeat employee become anxious and withdrawn for no apparent reason?

    Managers have a responsibility to look after the welfare of their staff and to dig deeper when their sixth sense tells them that all is not well.
  3. Make it easy for people to raise issues

    Power differences often get in the way of people speaking out about sexual harassment.

    Put yourself in the shoes of a young employee at the beginning of their career on the receiving end of unwelcome advances from a senior manager. They will be concerned that if they challenge the behaviour, it could be career limiting – or that they could even lose their job.

    Managers need to recognise that, no matter how approachable they try to be, staff will always monitor what they say and only disclose what they think is safe or politically acceptable. Research from Ashridge (Speaking Truth to Power by Megan Reitz and John Higgins) suggests that managers need to better understand what they can do to encourage “speak up” rather than “shut up” cultures. Sometimes even small, subtle measures, like meeting people on their territory rather than yours, can help to encourage more open dialogue.
  4. Don’t turn a blind eye

    As a bystander, it’s all too easy to roll your eyes when the issue of sexual harassment is mentioned and suggest someone is making an fuss or has lost their sense of humour. It’s equally easy to perhaps feel uncomfortable about the behaviour or comments you are witnessing, but to think it’s all just a bit awkward, not really your business, and to walk away. Inaction is not, however, an option.

    If someone tells you they have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, it’s important to both listen and do something about it. If you fail to act, you are effectively condoning the behaviour and allowing it to be brushed under the carpet.
  5. Seek support from HR

    HR departments are often the last to know about problems in teams. Managers should seek support from HR at an early stage. If there is a clear case to dismiss an employee for misconduct, HR will be able to advise on the procedure and minimise the risk of consequent legal action. If it is possible to “rescue” the situation, HR practitioners will be able to call on expert help to facilitate a constructive conversation between the parties involved.

    Managers should not be shy of asking HR for training to help them deal with these kind of problems. If an organisation wants managers to take responsibility for creating cultures where staff can thrive, they have a duty to equip them with the competence and confidence to do so.
  • David Liddle
    David Liddle is the author of Managing Conflict: a Practical Guide to Resolution in the Workplace, published by Kogan Page/CIPD, 2017

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