Wandering hands and risks for younger female workers

February 13, 2018

Categories Employment Law

The risks for younger female workers in a climate of normalized sexual harassment

The revelations in Madison Marriage’s report of groping and harassment at the Presidents Club charity dinner did not surprise me.

Employment lawyers hear of these things time and time again. Yet there was something about the environment which hit a nerve; a one off charity event staffed by mostly younger women, working irregular and antisocial hours, often aspiring to bigger things. As Ms. Marriage explained to Newsnight in her revelatory interview on 24th January 2018, her fellow hostesses were aspiring lawyers, marketing executives, film producers, students, models and actresses trying to make ends meet.  “Ambitious young women,” she said.

Although men and women of all ages are affected by sexual harassment, younger people, particularly women making their way into the labour market are in the more vulnerable groups. I wonder if employers give adequate consideration to the risks younger workers are exposed to. If not, perhaps they should.

An obvious point about sexual harassment is that it’s not about sex and never has been. It’s about power. It’s unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading and humiliating environment for the recipient. Because it’s about power, it strikes hardest at the most precariously positioned in the labour market, often the most economically and socially vulnerable.

As pointed out in a 2016 report by the TUC in association with the Everyday Sexism Project ‘Still just a bit of banter?,’ younger women aged 18–24 were more likely to respond positively that they had experienced the harassment described in the past 12 months; as are those on zero hours contracts and irregular work arrangements.

Across the country 18 to 24 year olds are starting their working experience in low paid jobs. For many their first exposure to working life is a holiday job in a bar, restaurant, or local store. They may, however, have been lucky enough to have secured an apprenticeship; a training contract; or valuable work experience.  They are often unfamiliar with acceptable standards, and despite the press coverage, are likely to be way out of their depth if subjected to sexual harassment, particularly by someone in a position of authority.

It cannot be right that a generation after the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 sexual harassment in the workplace remains rife and those entering the workforce in 2018 remain at risk.

If an organisation is serious about stamping out sexual harassment, it must address its own cultural norms. This requires a proactive approach from those in leadership and positions of influence, including HR setting an example, and leading by example.

Plenty can and should be done. The following suggestions are hopefully a useful starting point.

  • Organisations must be willing to make difficult decisions and stick with them. Perpetrators of sexual harassment are usually powerful; often in positions of senior leadership and financially successful. They may be seen as an asset to the organisation they work for and believe themselves to be untouchable, particularly so towards junior staff, who are keen to impress them. If organisations cover for them, sweeping their ‘misdemeanours’ under the carpet nothing will change.
  • Policies on anti-harassment and equal opportunities must be clear and fit for purpose. Lawyers say this all the time but not unusually, we find the staff handbook to be outdated, sitting in a dusty draw, with poorly drafted ‘lip service’ precedents, unfit for the organisation. A poll of more than 400 company secretaries from a range of businesses carried out by the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA) over the recent Christmas period found that more than 70% of organisations would not review their workplace harassment policies.  We suggest they are retrieved and reviewed by someone with a strategic role in the organisation.
  • Importantly, employers should ensure everyone is covered by anti-harassment and equal opportunities policies; including the temps, agency workers, part time staff, those on zero-hours contracts, work placement students, and trainees.
  • Organisations should make sure the policies contain some clear examples of sexual harassment so everyone understands what acceptable boundaries are and what are not. For young people this is particularly important having recently left school or higher education; effectively coming from environments where social conduct is different to what is expected in the workplace.
  • Businesses should integrate training on the policies into the induction for new starters and equal opportunity training for management. Not everyone is going to read a policy and for some it is helpful to be able to discuss and question what harassment is likely to look like. Apart from educating staff, the combination of training and clear policies will go some way in protecting an employer against claims of vicarious liability for harassment by showing that reasonable steps have been taken to prevent the unwanted conduct.
  • Businesses may want to consider who they use to provide services such as catering, cleaning etc. Are they ethical, legally compliant businesses in their own right? Do ethics feature in the procurement process? Enormous reputational damage can be done to an end user when agency staff, mistreated by their own employer, work for or at the end user’s premises. Often press reporting fails to make a clear distinction between the two.
  • With new recruits employers should consider ways in which senior members of the organisation could be more accessible if any problem arose. A mentor or workplace buddy, along with a staff partner could together operate as invaluable contact points.

Ultimately the aim has to be to create a fair place for everyone, young and old. It’s not going to happen if new starters are led to believe that harassment is an unwanted rite of passage to be endured at the start of their working life. They deserve more. Everyone does.

For specialist employment law advice and information contact a member of the Furley Page employment law team on 01227 763939.