Wide-ranging new guidelines designed to help employers stamp out harassment have emerged from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), with banter one of the many causes for concern in the organisation’s sights.
Published on 14 January and running to 84 pages, the guidelines  address various different forms of ‘unwanted conduct’ that people may experience in the workplace, including spoken words, banter, written words, posts or contact on social media, imagery, graffiti, physical gestures, facial expressions, mimicry, jokes or pranks, acts affecting a person’s surroundings, aggression and particular physical behaviours towards individuals or their property.
The EHRC notes in the document: “Employers are responsible for ensuring that workers do not face harassment in their workplace. They should take reasonable steps to protect their workers and will be liable for harassment committed by their workers if they fail to do so. Our 2018 report Turning the Tables  highlighted some of the most prevalent issues, and made a range of recommendations to the UK Government aimed at tackling the issue. This guidance is just one of the outcomes of this process.”
To bolster that message, EHRC chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath sent a letter to leading employers and industry groups,  urging CEOs to abide by the guidelines. She wrote: “There are seven clear steps that you can take to make sure that you are effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment. These steps will help make sure that you are in a position to meet your obligations: i) develop an effective anti-harassment policy; ii) engage your staff; iii) assess and mitigate risks in your workplace; iv) think about reporting systems; v) deliver training; vi) know what to do when a complaint is made, and vii) know what to do if dealing with sexual harassment and third parties.”
Time’s Up UK chair Dame Heather Rabbatts said that her organisation is “hugely supportive” of the guidelines which, in her view, “will go a long way to ensuring employers, workers and their representatives understand the extent and impact of harassment in the workplace, the law in this area and best practice for effective prevention and response”. 
However, as the guidelines are not currently enshrined in law, how effective are they likely to be – particularly among smaller firms that don’t have high, public profiles to maintain and may therefore not have the same sense of urgency as larger firms to observe the recommendations?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “It would be very difficult to argue that any highlighting or help and advice in the anti-harassment area is in any way unwelcome. But when expert bodies reduce that advice to seven steps, and one of those steps is ‘engage your staff’, we have to ask how helpful that guidance is ultimately going to be – because at a broad level, UK organisations struggle with engagement anyway. Never mind engagement with single issues.”
She notes: “In some of our previous News & Views blogs, we have explored how much line managers have to think about in terms of all the issues and campaigns they are meant to be not only familiar with, but building into their everyday interactions with staff. So with that in mind, this EHRC guidance is very much the first step towards opening up frank discussions around the subject: ‘Okay – so what’s it really like around here? Do we genuinely feel that we require this seven-step approach?’ And the only way you can find out is by asking staff about their experiences, and taking their feedback seriously.
“While the EHRC has provided some macro suggestions, all of the relevant interactions and interventions that those points encompass take place absolutely at a micro level. And if you have a culture in which people can speak up about, say, breaches of ethical guidelines, it’s highly likely that they will feel free to speak up about other problems as well. So that sort of openness will certainly help to break taboos. I imagine that’s what the EHRC is looking for by way of engagement: a sense that confronting harassment really matters to the people working in UK firms and is treated with due concern and significance. And I think the only way you’re going to get that is for each organisation to thoroughly examine its wider business culture – the environment in which these seven steps are meant to unfold.”
Cooper adds: “Organisations who may not be all that worried about the PR effects of inappropriate behaviour and the ensuing market impacts have a lot to think about. If you have a culture in which staff feel comfortable with speaking up and challenging actions they find distasteful – and in which there is also a strong emphasis on inclusivity – your wider business will enjoy considerable benefits. They will emerge not just in the forms of talent retention and discretionary effort among your own workforce, but positive relationships with your contractors and suppliers, too.
“What underpins all of this is the imperative to treat people with respect. As our November research on values showed, respect is a huge deal for staff. And if you look at the meaning of respect – which is to hold people in high regard, and to have due regard for their feelings – then if we in organisations were being respectful in the truest sense of the word, we wouldn’t even need seven steps to stamp out harassment.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on ethics