Time for a new approach to tackling sexual harassment?

Tackling sexual harassment is one of the biggest challenges facing HR right now – and as this week’s news has shown, it’s an issue that’s not going to go away any time soon.

Hot on the heels of the furore around Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment as a US Supreme Court judge comes a damning review of the culture at Save the Children UK. An independent report shows that almost one in five staff at the charity has experienced harassment or discrimination, with ‘unwanted sexual attention’ featuring on the list of complaints.

When allegations of sexual harassment are made, HR’s first response is usually to reach for the formal disciplinary and grievance procedure. This is often driven in part by the organisation’s anxiety to be seen to be ‘doing something’. Witness the many reports of organisations introducing new codes of conduct, launching ‘call-it-out’ campaigns and commissioning reviews of corporate culture in the year since the #MeToo campaign first hit the headlines.

Photograph of girl with head in her hands

A new white paper published by dispute resolution specialists The TCM Group questions, however, whether these undoubtedly well-meaning initiatives are knee-jerk reactions that are failing to get to the heart of the issue and in some cases serve to inflame rather than resolve situations.

“Clearly organisations should make use of the full range of remedies for tackling sexual harassment, including formal procedures,” says TCM Chief Executive David Liddle. “But the reality is that in all but the most serious cases, action is still not being taken and the issue of bullying and harassment at work remains as pervasive as ever.”

Analysis by the TCM Group suggests that in fact less than 10 per cent of reported cases of bullying or harassment result in a sanction being applied. That translates to 90 per cent of complainants being told their story is not believable or is not convincing enough to take action.

In an article in HR Magazine Shakil Butt of consultancy HR Hero for Hire points out that HR often finds itself in a difficult position when it comes to investigating allegations of sexual harassment – particularly if those allegations are leveled at senior management. They can perceive a conflict, he suggests, with their remit to serve the business, which pushes their role as custodian of the values into the background.

“If HR is seen as just an extension of management then they too become part of the problem, complicit through their support, inaction and/or silence. This creates a lack of faith in HR that in turn leads to an under-reporting of incidents and toxic cultures,” he is reported as saying.

Much work for HR to do then – not least in driving much needed cultural change and getting support from the very top of organisations to be able to see allegations through to a conclusion.

The TCM white paper puts forward an alternative – some might say controversial – approach that could also help organisations make headway with this difficult issue. It suggests that restorative justice – a well-established practice within criminal justice – is an approach that can work equally well in the workplace when it comes to getting to the root of complex issues like sexual harassment.

The approach gives victims of harassment the chance to meet or communicate with the perpetrators, so that they can explain the real impact the behaviour has had on them. An expert facilitator creates a safe space, where both parties can have a reflective conversation which is not about blame or retribution, but about gaining insights and moving forward.

“Asking a victim of alleged sexual harassment to sit down across the table and talk it out with the perpetrator may seem counter-intuitive, and there will of course be situations where this isn’t appropriate,” says David Liddle. “But people are often more willing than you might suppose to engage in dialogue. If you ask victims of sexual harassment what they want, their answer is often that they want the behaviour to stop and to feel they have a voice. They want to try and understand the motivation behind the behaviour they have encountered and they want the perpetrator to understand how it has made them feel, to acknowledge the impact and apologise. It’s a person centred, compassionate and values-based response that can help organisations deal with complex conflict in a meaningful and sustainable way.”

What do you think? Could this approach help to build more positive, respectful workplace cultures, or are there other ways HR could be tackling sexual harassment? Let us know your views.

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