EXCLUSIVE: Behavioural science around power is key to preventing sexual harassment

preventing sexual harassment

Employee Benefits Live 2018: Understanding behavioural science around power and authority is key to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

In a session titled ‘#MeToo – from a moment to a movement’, Andrew Armes, UK head of talent acquisition at Roche, and Elizabeth Prochaska, legal director at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), discussed the steps employers should take to raise awareness and prevent sexual harassment at work as part of the diversity and inclusion stream on 3 October.

Armes believes it is essential to foster an environment where sexual harassment, and discrimination as a whole, has no opportunity to take hold.

“It’s as fundamental as that,” he said. “It’s easier to put in place prevention than to deal with the consequences of something occurring.”

Armes also stated that understanding the biases and behaviour of those in power can play a significant part in combating harassment at work: “When put in authority and given power, we can become blind to our biases and behaviour. So you must support people who are put in places of leadership in understanding how it’s likely to affect their behaviour. A lot of people think, ‘No, I’m not biased, I’m a great leader,’ but this is stuff that can creep up on them because of the positions they’ve been put in.

“So that’s something to be mindful of when you’re promoting people and putting them into leadership positions. You need to support them by making them aware of how it will affect their brains, and therefore their behaviour.”

Similarly, it is important to support those employees in subordinate roles who are reporting into the leaders, said Armes. “You need to create a culture where there isn’t lenience regarding the behaviour of people in power,” he explained. “There can be a bias in the behaviour of employees where they think the behaviour of the person above them is okay because they are a leader. All employees need to be aware of their biases, and training at all levels is key.”

Sexual harassment can range across a whole spectrum of activities, explained Prochaska. She said: “It might be displaying a screensaver on a laptop that someone might find offensive, or distracting someone by making inappropriate comments.

“When it comes to judging whether it’s sexual harassment, ultimately it’s up to the person who feels as though they have been harassed. If they feel a working environment has been created that effectively degrades them, their perception is what counts.”

However, in terms of legal obligations, Prochaska explained that although employers have a duty of care to employees in negligence law, there is currently no legislation that says employers have a positive duty to protect their employees against sexual harassment.

She said: “If harassment occurs at work and the employee brings a tribunal claim, the employer might be liable vicariously for the actions of their co-worker if they haven’t taken reasonable steps to prevent harassment, but that’s quite different from saying they have a protective obligation.”

The EHRC is currently lobbying parliament to create that protective obligation on employers.

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“If we do succeed in convincing parliament to pass this legislation, we will be consulting with employers on what that positive duty should look like,” said Prochaska. “There has to be a balance with creating too much bureaucracy and making sure people have enough protection.”

In the meantime, Prochaska believes employers should think creatively about the way in which they can encourage their staff to report instances of harassment. “It’s about being able to always test the temperature of what’s going on in the workplace, and being hyper-vigilant about the kind of behaviour that can cause offence,” she said. “It’s very easy for it to get out of control once it takes root in an organisation.”