The CIPD’s Head of Research, Ksenia Zheltoukhova, has given evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee as part of a one-off session on sexual harassment in the workplace. The session, held on 31 January at Portcullis House, investigated employer responses to reports of sexual harassment, the adequacy of the law, and the advice available to employers and HR professionals.

In the UK, nearly two in three young women have experienced sexual harassment at work, and 79% of all women who have experienced workplace sexual harassment did not tell their employer, according to the TUC.

The reluctance to report sexual harassment at work can be explained by a number of factors. It can be due to a lack of awareness of a formal process, an employer’s poor track record in dealing with other sexual harassment cases, a weak organisational culture, or poor line management. Ms Zheltoukhova told the Committee that management must make special provisions for sexual harassment cases, and have clear policies which are regularly communicated and reinforced.

When asked what employers can do to increase reporting, Ms Zheltoukhova pointed to the underlying issue of positive and inclusive organisational cultures and suggested two actions that employers can take. First, she suggested that employers should create environments where there is a diversity of representation at senior management level; second, she emphasised the supportive role of line managers. The two must work in tandem to build an open and trusting organisational culture.

As for the support that is available to employers externally, there are concerns about consistency in guidance. When questioned about what should be done to improve consistency, Ms Zheltoukhova had three suggestions:

First, guidance should use consistent language and definitions of the terms used in relation to sexual harassment. Second, it should be made clear that judgement of behaviour should primarily sit with the victim rather than a witness or observer. Third, Ms Zheltoukhova said that guidance should provide practical advice and tools for employers to look at the culture and power dynamics in their organisation more broadly, as tackling sexual harassment on a case-by-case basis does not go far enough in tackling this broader issue.

Prior to Ms Zheltoukhova’s appearance, the Chair of the Committee, Maria Miller MP, met with CIPD’s Head of Public Policy, Ben Willmott, to ask for our views on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). Her interest stems from her focus on pregnancy and maternity discrimination and recent sexual harassment scandals. Ms Miller’s questions were principally on the ethics behind NDAs, and whether they are simply being used as ‘gagging’ orders to cover up wrongdoing. Mr Willmott explained our view that they should only be used as a last resort and can, on occasion, be used to save victims from the potentially intimidating experience of having to go through a process. However, there are times when they shouldn’t be used, for example, in order to cover up the behaviour of a senior manager who might be a repeat offender. This ties into a wider question about an organisation’s culture.

The Committee has now opened a full inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace to which the CIPD will be responding.

Watch the full evidence session here:

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