Cracking down | Workplace sexual harassment claims are falling, but not quickly enough

Workplace sexual harassment claims are falling, but not quickly enough

Claims of bullying and sexual harassment within the UK’s financial sector have steadily dropped following a watchdog crackdown, according to new reports.

Figures obtained exclusively by City AM show that the number of whistleblower reports made to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) that relate to “personal non-financial misconduct” dropped by 11% in the last year, down from 603 in 2020 to 537 in 2021.

According to the publication, financial services firms such as banks and insurers have been under increasing scrutiny from the FCA in recent years, as part of a major crackdown on personal misconduct by individual employees.

Catriona Watt, Partner at Fox & Partners, told City AM that “the drop in the number of personal misconduct reports shows action taken by financial services firms to improve workplace culture is starting to yield results.”

Watt said: “This has prompted an emphasis on training staff to be able to identify and call out misconduct.

“As employees return to their offices in greater numbers, we will see whether the training firms have put in place to create appropriate behaviour continues to be effective.”

The FCA imposes strong penalties for workers found to have committed acts of bullying or harassment. For example, senior managers who breach these may be hit with fines and even be banned from working in the financial services. They can also be punished if they fail to reprimand other workers who are guilty of similar misconduct.

Preventing sexual harassment

Acas defines sexual harassment as “unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature” and the law protects employees, workers, contractors, self-employed and job applicants from this.

For this to be considered as sexual harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either violated someone’s dignity, whether it was intended or not, or created a hostile environment for them, whether it was intended or not, the governmental body adds.

Data carried out by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) discovered that 52% of women have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work - from groping to inappropriate jokes.

As such, it is crucial that employers do all that they can to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

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In a previous interview, Katie Hodson, Partner and Head of Employment at SAS Daniels LLP, told HR Grapevine that in instances of sexual harassment, employers should have “robust policies in place”.

She previously pointed out that “staff need to be clear that this behaviour is unacceptable and aware of the consequences of breaching the policies. This could be supported by staff training”.

“Further, any and all complaints should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. This would include asking relevant questions and looking at the evidence with a clear and unbiased viewpoint,” Hodson concluded.

Bullying at work

Unfortunately, workplace bullying is more commonplace than we would like it to be. A survey conducted by SME Loans in 2020 found that almost a quarter (23%) of the British workforce have been bullied at work. It found that the bullying was consistent across age group and gender.

The Government’s website states that “bullying is not against the law, but harassment is.” Employees may have a case to bring if the harassment is related to age, sex, gender and gender reassignment, among other protected characteristics. The Government advises speaking to a manager, HR official or trade union official for advice on resolving the problem before escalating it to a formal complaint and perhaps an employment tribunal. They can also call the ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) helpline for advice on 0300 123 1100.

However, some have criticised the Government for their approach to tackling bullying at work, arguing that it does not go nearly far enough. Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) has called for a watchdog with “real teeth” to ensure bosses treat their workers properly, as well as to offer better protections for people working in low-paid sectors who fear they are being exploited at work. CAS claims to have seen evidence of “staggering cases of workers being mistreated” during the pandemic, including bullying.

In a statement, CAS Social Justice Spokesperson David Scott said: “The pandemic has created huge challenges for employers across all industries – but there’s no excuse to break the law and not recognise the rights working people have.

“Better promotion and awareness of rights at work would make a difference, as would the UK Government bringing forward an employment rights watchdog with real teeth to tackle bad bosses.”

What employees can do

If you do find yourself experiencing bullying at work, experts recommend you do the following:

  • Speak up early on. It may be difficult to confront a bully, but there's the possibility that being called out will stop them in their tracks.

  • Get to know your company's policy around workplace harassment.

  • Document the abuse. Keep records of what they say and do, with times and dates.

  • Speak to your supervisor and/or HR manager. They should help you tackle the situation.

  • Practice self-care. Find someone to talk to informally about what's going on.

  • Make an official complaint.

What HR can do

The majority of employers are aware of the protections afforded to employees under the Equality Act relating to issues of discrimination and harassment, and do have up-to-date and comprehensive policies on equality, diversity and inclusion.

However, employers should keep an eye on their workplace culture generally to make sure it is professional and appropriate, as well as inclusive. Up-to-date training on communicating in a modern-day workplace should also be provided to employees regularly to ensure all workers know what is and what is not appropriate workplace behaviour.

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