From #MeToo to #WithYou – what we need to do next to tackle sexual harassment at work

By Katerina Rudiger, Chief Community Officer, Community Investment, CIPD

'So much of the narrative seems to be ‘oh I didn’t know that wasn’t normal’. HR should take a lead on setting clear expectations about what behaviour is and isn’t ok in the workplace, encouraging organisations to have widely known processes about who to speak to about any incidents and a track record for following through, even if the details can’t be shared.'

This is one of the responses I received following the blog I wrote on the #MeToo debate last week. I asked the question - to HR people and non-HR people - as to what we at the CIPD and the HR profession need to do next to start changing the culture in our workplaces and tackle the sexual harassment most women and some men will experience often repeatedly or at least at some point in their working life.

I received an overwhelmingly positive response and broadly the comments fell into two categories: firstly, creating the right environment where this isn’t acceptable anymore and secondly, we all need to be accountable and speak up when it does happen. In addition there was also a consensus that HR needed to demonstrate that they care.

In terms of creating a zero-tolerance environment, people talked to me about the importance of educating and supporting young people before they first enter the labour market. Young women need to know that this is not the “way things are.” The CEO of the Young Scot told me how she spoke to teenage girls asking them if they have ever been treated differently or as second class citizens. They said yes but they didn’t say or do anything about it 'because we thought this is just how it is.' They didn’t even know that it was unacceptable because they didn’t know there was an alternative. This needs to stop. But it is not just about young women, this is also about young men starting their career and educating them about what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace.

Having more diverse teams helps with creating a more balanced culture, as opposed to those where women are in the minority. We also need more diverse leadership with more women in senior roles. Someone said to me that maybe we just have to wait a decade for this to happen, as the culture will automatically change when 'that generation of older white men in leadership roles’ have left the labour market. Sure, there is a generational dimension to this. It is not that long ago that women entered the labour market and, in a way, workplaces are still adapting to that. Soon the Weinstein-type characters will become real relics of the past. And yet, we cannot bank on this and wait for that to happen – we need to take action now, especially as we know that sexual harassment is ongoing in many workplaces and people need help and change needs to happen now

The second thing that came out strongly from the responses I’ve received was that we needed an expectation that everyone should speak up when they observe unprofessional behaviour, not just the victims. Apparently everyone knows someone in the workplace who is inappropriate. In all organisations women share open secrets about who to avoid getting in the lift with, have meetings with on their own or work on a joint project. We just have to look at the stories coming out of the UK Parliament where women have taken to WhatsApp to warn each other about who to avoid.

Despite men and women being aware of this behaviour, often it is overlooked, covered up or it even treated as a joke, 'oh everyone knows so and so is a bit of a sleaze.' If everyone knows it should be tackled, then we all should take responsibility to speak up, and that includes those who witness this sort of behaviour as well as those who experience it. In order to support this movement, HR needs to build trust among employees by guaranteeing that there are robust processes in place to deal with cases of sexual harassment and that any complaint is followed up and dealt with. As it can be very damaging otherwise, as one (male) whistle-blower told me: 'Time and time again I have heard inappropriate comments which I’ve always reported to no action.' This sits right at the heart of the debate around trust in the HR profession – otherwise, who should line managers turn to if a staff member reports sexual harassment? Or who can an employee go to if their line manager is the problem?

It is good to see that men are now asking what they can do to change this. Because we really need men to stand up for this too. It can’t be all about feminine solidarity – zero-tolerance won’t work unless everyone is on board. Most of the female population has accepted sexism as part of their daily life and most of the male population have been completely oblivious to the many nuances of this. I think we all need to have an open dialogue about what is acceptable and what isn’t and this may vary from one individual to the next and from one relationship to the other.

However, to the men who now want to have the debate about how all of this has made them feel uncomfortable about what to say and how to behave in the workplace I just want to say: Welcome to our world! We’ve felt way more than uncomfortable for decades. If we have been able to navigate constant sexual harassment as part of our daily lives, I’m sure you can navigate how to treat us as equals. I promise we’ll help you.

Finally, we need to think about how we can help those workplaces that don’t have an HR department, as part of our mission to champion better work and working lives. We know that where management capabilities are low and where there aren’t many checks and balances the culture is particularly prone to abuse – again the case of the UK Parliament is a good example for this. We can do this by setting an example for others in our own organisational contexts, sharing knowledge and tips among the profession for how to get things right, and use the CIPD community to support each other to do the right thing regardless.

At the CIPD we have started to think about how we can positively shape the debate and support our members in tackling this important issue both in their workplaces and beyond. Please get in touch if you want to share examples and ideas of how we can best do this.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • "'Time and time again I have heard inappropriate comments which I’ve always reported to no action.' This sits right at the heart of the debate around trust in the HR profession – otherwise, who should line managers turn to if a staff member reports sexual harassment? Or who can an employee go to if their line manager is the problem?"  

    I think one of the difficulties staff face isn't HR's lack of support or reluctance but the attitude of senior management who don't want to look at this stuff because it makes them uncomfortable about not only their own behaviour but also the people who are being complained about are often their friends or people they have been mentoring and promoting over the years.  This then casts a shadow over them and they don't want their own judgement to be called into question.  It is, from what I've witnessed over the years, all about senior management self-preservation and there's nothing the CIPD can do about that.