Workplace harassment – what employers should be doing to protect staff

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you’re more likely than not to have experienced sexual harassment, bullying or verbal abuse.

That should be shocking. But sadly, for the 57% of women working in UK businesses, it’s not surprising at all.

Recent research from the TUC has revealed that two in three young women have experienced such misconduct, with 71% of incidents happening outside of the office.

In the wake of the research, allegations of rape at business lobby group the CBI and reports of culture that “enabled” sexual harassment and bullying at transport union TSSA, FBC Manby Bowdler Partner Julia Fitzsimmons shares how employers can tackle an issue which looks to be on the rise.

Every woman should have the right to feel safe at work. Everyone should have this right. But the TUC’s recent survey of 1,000 women revealed an uncomfortable truth.

Many of them didn’t even bother to report the incidents.

In fact, less than 30% of women who’d experienced sexual harassment told their employer about it; 44% of those who’d been bullied reported it and 50% reported verbal abuse.

Of those who did not report it, 39% felt they would not be taken seriously, 37% felt it would negatively impact their relationships at work and 25% were worried about their career prospects.

So what should employers be doing to protect their staff?

There is a private member’s bill that would give employers a duty to protect workers from third party harassment, the Worker Protection Bill, currently working its way through parliament, but is yet to be approved.

But employers already have a duty of care to employees to prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place. Although the perpetrator is clearly responsible for his or her own actions, employers could also be liable through “vicarious liability” whether the harassment takes place online, at a work social event or in the workplace itself.

In the first instance, it’s advisable to develop an anti-harassment policy and potentially a sexual harassment policy too. This allows employers to set out what will not be tolerated in the workplace and the consequences should the policy not be complied with.

The policy should be explicit in what sexual harassment is and provide clear examples of it along with information about the reporting and complaints procedure at your company.

Of course, any policy is only of use if your employees are aware of its existence, which means embedding it into inductions and finding opportunities through employee engagement to remind people and share details.

When you consider how many women in the TUC poll thought they wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously in their complaint, it’s vital for employers to build confidence in a reporting system which is laid out clearly as part of any relevant policy.

It may be that an anonymous reporting system could be introduced or potentially a dedicated staff member could be identified as the point of contact for employees raising a complaint.

Of course, it will depend on the seriousness of any allegation what action ultimately an employer needs to take.

But if they start from the basis of acknowledging the potential issue, putting in place straightforward policies; taking action to raise awareness of what harassment looks like and how it won’t be tolerated in all its forms, then employers will be not only protecting their people, but themselves from possible legal action for failing in their duty of care.

Our team has decades of experience in supporting employers to develop effective policies and procedures covering workplace practice. If we can help you, please contact me at