Sexual harassment victims lack trust in HR


It’s little surprise that victims feel lonely and unsupported when many companies still turn a blind eye to harassment, says Anne Payne

The only thing more shocking than the recent finding that two-thirds of young women are still experiencing harassment at work is that 79 per cent chose not to tell their employer.

Having witnessed first hand just how damaging unwanted sexual advances can be for someone’s self-esteem, it’s simply unacceptable that not only is this still happening, but that victims don’t have enough trust in their employer to ask for help.

For more people to come forward, HR must reassure victims that their experiences and concerns will be taken seriously and their personal welfare prioritised.

For those individuals who’ve been singled out for unwanted sexual attention, it can be a very lonely place. If they don’t feel able to talk about what’s happening, they can feel like they’ve been placed in an impossible situation, fearful about the next comment or physical advance. Victims may experience heightened anxiety or isolation, leading to anxiety and depression. If they do muster up the courage to confide in someone, but then their experience is neither addressed nor taken seriously, trust between them and their employer breaks down. Victims may feel they have no choice but to leave, only for the next unsuspecting person to take their place.

If the perpetrator is senior or considered valuable to the organisation, both the victim and the person supporting them may have to be resilient and persistent to identify someone who will take the issue seriously and use their influence to get something done.

I once had to deal with a man who was well known by the HR team because of his behaviour towards young female colleagues. When I asked why he’d been allowed to carry on, it emerged that the business felt his ability to bring in new business meant everyone was required to turn a blind eye to his ‘inappropriate’ behaviour. I was unprepared to ignore the allegations so had to find someone senior enough to confront his behaviour, while also moving the current victim into another department where they thrived.

Ultimately, companies have a legal duty of care to look after their employees and failure to do this will not only generate unwanted absence and turnover costs, but could lead to reputation-damaging lawsuits. Fast-food chain KFC found this out last month when it was ordered to pay £30,000 after managers failed to prevent a co-worker from repeatedly touching and exposing himself to two young sisters.

There are several steps organisations that are serious about eradicating sexual harassment can take to make an immediate, and significant, impact:

  • Make sure victims know who they can talk to in confidence about the emotional impact that the harassment is having on them, be this HR, their manager or an employee assistance programme.

  • Ensure managers are publicly trained on what is and isn’t acceptable, and how to hold difficult conversations with anyone crossing the line.

  • Don’t turn a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour because of the alleged perpetrator’s seniority or commercial value to the business.

  • Create the processes required to take action against anyone who deliberately makes someone feel distressed, intimidated or offended by behaviour of a sexual nature.

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