Tammy Banks is CEO of Yorkshire-based charity re:shape, which works to prevent sexual harm: the charity’s mission statement is ‘No more victims’. Re:shape’s newly-launched its Sexual Misconduct & Harassment Response Service provides support and education to help businesses respond appropriately and ethically to the complex issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace affect organisations of all sizes and types. Every misconduct case is unique and must be handled sensitively to protect both rights and reputations - understandably, many organisations are unsure how to approach the subject, leading to inadequate or defensive responses when the issue arises.
Here’s our advice for approaching this most sensitive of workplace issues in a landscape where more people than ever are speaking out about their experiences.
Accept that no business is immune
Business owners find themselves dealing with all kinds of issues they never expect to encounter. But handling any workplace issue by passing it off as a one-off occurrence puts you on the back foot and will leave you vulnerable to managing the situation badly.
Like any workplace misconduct issue, it’s about understanding and navigating your risk – in this case a historic, current or future allegation of sexual misconduct – and just acknowledging that it’s a possibility is the first step towards being able to protect your staff and your business. Re:shape’s Response Service is designed to help business leaders navigate their risk and responsibility, both as an employer and an employee, to create a positive and safe working environment.
Learn how to have difficult conversations, and how to listen
Talking to your colleagues about harassment and misconduct, even in a non-disciplinary setting, is no fun for anyone involved: misconduct is always an emotive topic, and it can be hard to maintain an impartial or professional tone when talking to the people at either end of the claim.
That said, these awkward conversations are a test of your mettle as a boss. Sensitive and fair handling reflects well on you as a responsible employer, and more widely on the business by demonstrating its commitment to staff safety.
If a member of your team comes to you to have a difficult conversation, listen carefully and give them your full attention. Stay neutral but supportive: no one should ever feel they are creating a problem by reporting or be made to feel ashamed for making a disclosure. Take notes if necessary, recording the dates and times of any alleged incidences of misconduct, and ascertain the outcome that the reporting individual would like from the situation. At the end of the conversation, be sure to discuss and agree what the next steps will be, keeping the person informed throughout the process.
Put solid protocol in place
Are you doing everything as an employer to protect your staff and your organisation? If not, it’s time to look at what’s missing.
Sexual misconduct can be the elephant in the room in business – but, as with any kind of professional misconduct, it’s a business issue that’s much easier to talk about and deal with if you have proper structures in place for processing any disclosures.
If your firm has an HR department, speak to them about ensuring that you have a robust and up-to-date policy in place for dealing with misconduct (of all kinds) and escalating complaints. Not every incidence should necessarily end in dismissal, but it should be clear to everyone that the business takes a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct and will sanction appropriately or pass details on to the appropriate authorities.
Work on company culture
The importance of creating a positive, respectful dynamic among colleagues can’t be overstated: establishing good company culture is a fundamental way of reducing the likelihood of misconduct incidents occurring.
There are all kinds of ways to improve employee culture without resorting to stick-and-carrot methods. Gently call out inappropriate language if you hear it used, instead of laughing or nodding along. Understand that a culture of respect and accountability comes down to the seemingly little things: people can be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe by a workplace dynamic that’s focused on sexual banter and off-colour jokes.
And, no, ‘it’s just a joke’ won’t cut it: belittling the concerns of your staff doesn’t reflect well on how you’ve handled the situation. Step up to the task of being a role model within your business, and make it clear that your colleagues hold that responsibility, too.
Seek external advice and support if necessary
As with any management issue, it’s best to seek advice and support if you’re unsure of the best way to manage a sexual misconduct allegation. Besides the distress caused to victims, a badly-handled misconduct case can damage a business and impact employees: loss of talent, negative media attention and reputational damage are all consequences that can be avoided.
Be mindful that preparing for the unexpected is better than shutting the stable door too late: you don’t have to wait for a misconduct case to occur to demonstrate that your business takes the issue seriously. Consider enlisting external support to help you avoid even getting to this point: at re:shape, we work with businesses to assess their risk, responsibilities and responses to historic, ongoing, or future allegations, so they can protect their employees, stakeholders, service users and customers from the risk of sexual harassment.
For more information about re:shape’s services and how to become a member, visit https://re-shape.org.uk/business.
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