In 2023, the government launched an inquiry into sexism and misogyny within London financial firms after a barrage of sexual assault allegations rocked the business world. The inquiry found that instead of dissipating, sexual assault in the workplace has simply changed in nature.
Reportedly, these cases have become more prominent at conferences and work trips as opposed to existing within the office – indicating that businesses still have a long way to go in dismantling misogyny.
Getting to the root of sexual harassment in the workplace
The inquiry is timely considering the past year has seen numerous sexual harassment scandals in the business world. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) came under the microscope when a series of harassment and abuse scandals arose from employees at the organisation.
Whilst it was revealed that sexist comments were made towards Amanda Blanc, Aviva’s CEO, by the company’s shareholders – saying she was “not the man for the job” and should be “wearing trousers”.
A new survey from the trade union Prospect, which surveyed 200 female employees at public sector defense organisations, found that 60% had faced sexual harassment whilst working there.
These are just a few examples of the increase in sexual misconduct cases within UK workplaces. But the likelihood is that there hasn’t been an uptick in these scenarios, rather victims are more confident now than in the past to express their allegations.
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Heightened scrutiny around sexual harassment – which has certainly been seen in society since the MeToo Movement – has the power of treating the symptoms of sexism in the workplace, such as the use of misogynistic language. However, it doesn’t necessarily address the root of the problem – meaning that instead of going away, the issue takes on a new face.
Out of office
This is largely what was discovered in the inquiry, which found that although sexist ‘banter’ had declined in the workplace, problematic attitudes and behaviours were now “more underhand and pernicious”, with a greater likelihood to happen on work trips as opposed to being in the office. And with there being an increase in sexual misconduct on work trips, incidences happening away from the office are likely to give way to employees feeling their workplace codes of conduct don’t still apply.
“Employees need to be reminded that conferences and work trips are just as much a work activity as coming into the office and are all covered by HR policies,” says Natasha Kearslake, Director at Organic P&O Solutions.
“Regular training should keep employees updated on how they should conduct themselves and should stress the need for responsible behaviour at all times. Employees should be made aware of how they report complaints that happen off the premises, and emergency contact details should be provided, especially when staff are out of the country on business.
“Rooting out misogyny and sexism will not happen through codes of conduct alone, however. Workplace training on harassment and educating employees on the effect it has on victims is the only thing that will change minds.”
What procedures should you take?
The impending implementation of the Worker Protection Act, which is scheduled to take effect in October 2024, will place more responsibility on employers to ensure a safe workplace free from sexual misconduct.
In a situation where an allegation is expressed, employers should have a grievance and anti-bullying and harassment policy in place, as a minimum, to help them respond to complaints. Paul Kelly, Partner and Head of Employment law at Blacks Solicitors, comments: These policies are key to ensure employees know what to do when they witness or experience sexual harassment in the workplace and managers know how to handle complaints. In terms of responding to complaints, the key is to carry out a thorough investigation. Employers should first start by talking to the employee who has reported the incident.
“Listen to their story, be empathetic towards them and keep an open mind. It’s important to be impartial and gather all the facts including when, what, where and who to assist, and then carry out further investigations to understand what has happened and if disciplinary action is necessary. Given the seriousness of the complaint, it is usually appropriate to treat the complaint as a grievance if the employee has not indicated this or alternatively ask the employee if they wish to raise a formal grievance and how they would like the complaint to be dealt with.”
The recent inquiry outcomes revealed that sexual misconduct in the workplace is still very present. With the introduction of the Workplace Protection Act looming, which will make employers more responsible for creating a safe work environment free from sexual assault, the need for businesses to have appropriate procedures in place in case of allegations becomes crucial. This way, potential perpetrators know what will happen if they behave inappropriately, and victims feel empowered to express a grievance.