Gill Taylor: Sexual harassment - it does happen here

And that's why you need codes of conduct and good HR policies to deal with the issue, writes our columnist

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

The third sector might like to think it doesn’t happen, but it does, and I have had to deal with cases only recently.

The experience of sexual harassment is not a one-off, it is ongoing and covers a wide range of actions such as unwanted name-calling, sexual advances, an unpleasant environment because of pictures or use of language and even rape, but the common theme is power and control. For too many women it is the backdrop to their lives.

One reason is that some people (abusers) in society (usually men) feel a sense of entitlement and privilege to get what they want when they want it. The attacker usually has some sense of power over the target and thinks "they won’t report this because I am stronger (in all kinds of ways), or more senior".

The next enabling factor is an environment where the abuser feels there is low risk and is less likely to be challenged because of shame or fear on the part of the target or their belief of a complaint not being taken seriously.

So what can be done to create and promote a climate in which it is less likely to happen and will be dealt with effectively? Challenge organisational culture – there must be the political will to change if it is a problem.

Establish a code of conduct for all staff that is explicit about respect for women and respect for all people who might be targets because of different oppressions. Talk about what this means openly and clearly. Don’t see this as a one-off; keep talking and use real examples.

Use language to challenge perceptions and power imbalances and enable people to come forward. So don't, for example, talk about sexual harassment "victims" but rather of "survivors".

Set up good HR policies and routes for disclosing abuse. Train the managers who will have to handle such complaints. Survivors of sexual harassment are often reluctant to report incidents for fear of retaliation or being disbelieved. So start by believing them. A dignity at work policy is important to develop but must be backed up by training of managers and making it part of new starters’ inductions.

Don’t be a bystander. Often a survivor will tell someone else first before reporting it "officially" to gauge opinion. In this position encourage the person to report and stand by them. Or if you are a witness, say something yourself. For men the White Ribbon campaign is an initiative to enable them to take a stand against violence and sign a personal pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about men's violence against women.

Be proactive anyway – you do not have to wait for the person under attack to make a complaint. Colleagues and managers can and should initiate complaints where the actions of an employee are serious. This is often culturally counter-intuitive and requires the courage of your convictions.

During an investigation, provide support to individuals. While you are investigating the complaint internally, consider how to support the individual. You might have local specialist places for support, but there are also national helplines. There are fewer rape crisis centres in the UK now than there used to be, but there are still sources of support. If the complaint is about a line manager, you might need to move one or the other, but do not penalise the person who has made the complaint.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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