Watchdog warning | IKEA told to improve its response to employee sexual harassment complaints

IKEA told to improve its response to employee sexual harassment complaints

Ikea has signed a legal agreement with the EHRC amid concerns over how it has handled sexual harassment complaints made by a UK worker.

The legally binding agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) commits the Swedish homeware and furniture giant to a number of measures to better protect workers in the UK and is likely to last until August 2025.

The EHRC first contacted IKEA in February 2022 after being made aware of an allegation of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Reports indicated that these allegations were not appropriately handled by management at one of their UK stores.

The watchdog will monitor the companys’s compliance with the agreement, to ensure all actions are completed within the agreed timescales and can use its legal powers as a regulator to enforce the action plan.

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Under the terms of the legally binding agreement, the firm has committed to reviewing the way it deals with sexual harassment and meeting its responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010.

IKEA will:

  • communicate a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment to all staff

  • work with a specialist external law partner to support the organisation in reviewing its policies and processes relating to sexual harassment, and to improve its responses to complaints

  • provide training on the enhanced policies and processes regarding harassment and sexual harassment to HR staff and all line managers

IKEA has more than 11,000 workers across its 22 UK locations.

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Chairwoman of the EHRC, said: “No matter how big or small, every employer is responsible for protecting its workforce and sexual harassment should not be tolerated.

“As Britain’s equality regulator we help employers to understand the law and we take action to prevent it from being breached. In signing this agreement, IKEA UK has taken an important step towards ensuring their staff are better protected from harassment.”

Falkner continued: “Employers should not assume that a low level of reporting means there is no problem with sexual harassment in the workplace, or that policies and procedures alone are enough to stop harassment from happening.

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“Sexual harassment needs to be dealt with very seriously. The training and development work already completed at the store where the complaint emerged is a welcome sign of IKEA’s commitment to better practice.”

Darren Taylor, People & Culture Manager at IKEA UK said: “Over the coming two and a half years we will continue to work collaboratively with the EHRC to ensure the best possible working environment for our people.

“We have robust policies and procedures in place to protect our co-workers and we take our responsibility to do so incredibly seriously, however, we also recognise and welcome opportunities to review and strengthen our approaches even further.

"At Ikea, we do not tolerate harassment of any kind."

A similar legal agreement was reached between the EHRC and McDonald’s UK earlier this year, following similar concerns about how the fast-food chain had previously responded to allegations of harassment among its British workforce.

It is not known how many current complaints have been made by McDonald’s UK employees, but the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) claimed in 2019 that more than 1,000 cases had been reported.

A fifth of workers have experienced violence and harassment

IKEA and McDonald’s may be the most recognisable brands facing a battle against workplace harassment but, to state the obvious, the issue is not unique to the fast-food giant.

Recent research uncovered that a fifth of people worldwide (21%) have experienced at least one form of violence and harassment at work in their working lifetime.

More worryingly, the research also found that a majority of those who had experienced violence and harassment at work had experienced it multiple times – 61% in instances of psychological harassment, and 56% and 52% respectively for physical or sexual violence and harassment, highlighting a need for a zero-tolerance approach.

The data features in a new report – Safe at Work? Global experiences of violence and harassment – which is based on the 2021 Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll, powered by Gallup. 125,000 people across 121 countries were polled about their experiences of workplace harassment and violence, as well as the nature and frequency of it.

The report also found that, at a global level, men were fractionally more likely to report experience of workplace violence and harassment than women (22% vs 20%), though its nature varies between the sexes.

While psychological harassment was found to be the most common form experienced by both men and women, it was found that for a third of women (33%) who had experienced violence or harassment, there was a sexual element (compared with for 15% of men).

The survey found that men’s second most common experience was a combination of psychological and physical violence and harassment (accounting for 20% or one in five male experiences), while for women it was sexual violence and harassment.

Employers must be proactive in tackling harassment

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy at Peninsula, points out that ultimately it is the responsibility of all employers to take proactive measures to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace.

Palmer previously told HR Grapevine: “Sadly, sexual harassment is still a very present issue in many workplaces. In fact, recent research has found that almost three-quarters (72%) of female workers have seen or been subject to inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues in the workplace.

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Palmer said that, while a robust policy is the first step in preventing misconduct, organisations should also ensure they have a clear, zero-tolerance attitude towards this behaviour. Similarly, workplace training for managers and workers on how to manage, avoid and report inappropriate actions can go a long way in discouraging all forms of sexual harassment in the workplace, as can providing effective support for affected employees.

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Palmer went on: “Earlier this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission teamed up with UK Hospitality to publish a new action plan and checklist for employers, to help them stop sexual harassment in the workplace. This was created following research which found that most hospitality workers have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, and most found it to be a “normal” part of the job in settings where alcohol is consumed.

“Employers in customer-facing sectors should also keep in mind that harassment may come from third parties so take extra steps to minimise the impact this could have on employees. Failure to adequately address inappropriate behaviours and creating a culture which does not facilitate diversity and inclusion can prove detrimental for organisations; those who don’t may risk tribunal claims, high turnover, and reduced productivity.”

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