#MeToo? Are employers really ready to tackle unwanted sexual behaviour?

Over the last month or so, we have seen an explosion in the number of people – mainly women but men too – who are saying they have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour. We purposefully use the term ‘unwanted sexual behaviour’ here, because it is important that it covers the whole spectrum of behaviour from sexual harrassment, right through to rape, which is a serious criminal offence, and everything in between. This is important because the distinctions are not always clear and the impact is not always the same.

Since the first allegations were made about Harvey Weinstein over in Hollywood, we have seen a whole range of similar allegations being made against other people, more often than not in more powerful positions than the people it has been claimed that they have touched, groped or assaulted. The recent #MeToo campaign has quickly highlighted the staggering scale of this problem.

Whether it be in a Hollywood production company, a political party, an elite sport, an estate agency, a law firm, a theatre….or wherever, it has quickly become clear that this is a societal problem. However, because of the bravery of a few people at first, then the more people that followed, it is becoming increasingly clear that this kind of unwanted sexual behaviour is not acceptable and should not be tolerated.

The big problem, of course, is how do we tackle unwanted sexual behaviour?  At LimeCulture, we have been grappling with this issue long before the Weinstein story broke. We wholeheartedly agree that unwanted sexual behaviour is a societal problem that needs to be routed out and confronted. If there is a law that has been broken then if the victim so chooses to report it, it should be investigated and then prosecuted. However, unwanted sexual behaviour is not always as clear cut as that. There will be times when the law alone is not enough, or the victim does not want to report it to the police, and it should be the responsibility of others to act to prevent or stop unwanted sexual behaviour. It will also be for others to protect those who have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour, at whatever end of the spectrum, and respond appropriately to their needs.

So who does that responsibility belong to? Well we know this kind of behaviour often occurs when there is an imbalance of power. When somebody is senior and the other person is junior. When somebody is the boss and the other person is not. When somebody is experienced and the other person is learning. We know that this kind of thing happens in the workplace. Therefore, we think the starting point (and it is just that, a starting point) should be a focus on employers and making sure that organisations take responsibility for the people they employ.  Are they doing everything they should or could they be doing more to tackle unwanted sexual behaviour? Lets start here.

Nobody disputes that employers have responsibility for their employees.  This means that they also have a responsibility to their staff to respond appropriately to any disclosure of unwanted sexual behaviour, be that an act of harassment or a sexual assault.

Most organisations should and probably do have HR policies and procedures to deal with complaints or disputes, which will be dealt with through a disciplinary process. However, are these fit for purpose when it comes to handling allegations of unwanted sexual behaviour? Probably not.

We know from talking to a range of organisations that quite often any complaint that is made would go up the chain of authority….but what if the person who committed the unwanted sexual behaviour is at the top of the tree? Or the line manager who is supposed to be conducting the investigation or handling the complaint? This doesn’t work.  Or what if those in  HR, just doesn’t ‘get’ what all the fuss is about?  This doesn’t do much to create a culture where people feel able to speak up, which is surely what any employing organisations should aspire to.

At LimeCulture, the reason we  think the average HR disciplinary policy is probably not fit for this type of allegation is the sensitive nature of this type of behaviour and the risk and needs of the victim that may result as a consequence of the unwanted sexual behaviour. How you handle somebody who is repeatedly late for work, for example, should not be the same way as a disclosure of sexual violence.

So what is different when somebody discloses unwanted sexual behaviour? Well, over and above supporting them in relation to their employment needs, (e.g., what they need in the workplace to allow them to continue to do their job), an employer who supports that staff member effectively, will also want to consider the wider support needs of that person, particularly if it follows behaviour at the more ‘serious’ end of the spectrum, such as a sexual assault. In addition to their employment needs (they may need time off work, they may need to move desks or even offices), they may also have mental health needs, physical health needs, sexual health needs. They may wish to report their experience to the police, which could end up in a lengthy investigation. They may end up in court, giving evidence in a trial against their perpetrator.

Importantly, the employing organisation should want to ensure that they have acted appropriately when the disclosure was made to them. The organisation will also need to be sure that it’s involvement has not done anything to undermine a future criminal prosecution or contaminated evidence relating to the sexual offence in the event that the employee wants to report the matter to the police at any point either now or in the future. Furthermore, HR or other staff could potentially be called as witnesses in a trial, so robust record keeping will need to be in place to account for any involvement the employing organisation has had in relation to an offence.

In addition to their victim-care responsibilities, all employers will also have to consider their responsibilities for any staff member who is accused of committing unwanted sexual behaviour. This may involve carrying out an investigation internally, it might mean implementing polices and procedures to remove or suspend the accused from the workplace and could include reviewing whether the organisation could have done anything to prevent the behaviour by way of safeguarding.

Sometimes the hardest thing for somebody who has experienced unwanted sexual behaviour is telling another person about their experience. They often feel guilt or shame about their experience or they might be worried that they won’t be believed. This is compounded when the perpetrator is a manager, or in a more senior position.  These factors all contribute to the barriers that stop people coming forward. But now we are seeing the tide is turning and we have to support those people who are brave enough to come forward. If we make it clear to everyone within an organisation that your employers will listen to you, offer you advice and can support you if you have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour, no matter at what end of the spectrum it sits, then we begin to remove – or at least begin to break down – some of those barriers.

It is the complexity around this area that has led LimeCulture to realise that we simply cannot expect all employers to get this right. Our work with other big institutions has shown us just how complex these sensitive issues are to get right. But it is so very important that we do. That is why at LimeCulture are bringing together our partners and trying to find solutions for employing organisations who have a duty not to fail their staff who have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace.

We are currently putting together a package of support for employing organisations that includes:

  • Independent review of organisational policies and practices to ensure they are fit for purpose to handle cases of sexual harassment/violence
  • Developing organisational strategies for tackling unwanted sexual behaviour
  • Reviewing existing HR policies to ensure they are suitable to respond to disclosure of unwanted sexual behaviour including sexual harassment right through to disclosures of rape
  • Training key staff members to respond appropriately to the needs of victims
  • Developing appropriate approaches towards the interviewing of victims and perpetrators
  • Development of case management processes for handling cases of unwanted sexual behaviour

If you would like more information about the support that LimeCulture can provide to employers, please contact us info@limeculture.co.uk