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The sexual abuse scandal: Why all companies should act

Richard Phillips

It seems not a day is going by without a headline of another sexual assault allegation. The curtain has been lifted on years of sexual misconduct as more victims are being empowered to come forward. The scandals may well be a tipping point for companies to take a closer look at their own internal cultures.

While it is the remote worlds of Hollywood and Westminster that have been the focus of media attention, everyday places of work may be the setting for exactly the same issues. Research by the TUC, in association with the Everyday Sexism Project, has revealed that more than half of women surveyed in the UK said they have experienced sexual harassment at work. Of these, nearly 23% experienced unwanted touching and 20% experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances.

Lying behind the numbers are personal accounts of misconduct. A blog posted earlier this year by a former Uber employee described the harassment and discrimination she faced whilst working at the company. The first-hand account of everyday abuses resonated with many and sparked an internal investigation into Uber’s workplace culture. Over twenty employees were fired following the probe and it potentially contributed to the resignation of the company’s then chief executive, Travis Kalanick.

Victims from across society are now coming forward with their stories of abuse. This is both in high-profile cases against celebrities and through the #MeToo social media campaign, which has highlighted experiences of sexual harassment in everyday spaces.

Such encounters have remained buried for years, even decades. This being, the true extent of the issue had not been fully realised.

The picture is the same within companies, where gender-related abuses also remain hidden. The TUC survey revealed that nearly 80% of women who said they experienced sexual harassment at work did not tell their employer. As a result, companies may be ignorant to the very existence of a problem within their organisations.

There are a multitude of reasons why such incidents go unreported. The TUC found that some victims believed reporting a case would impact negatively on their relationships at work (28%) or on their career prospects (15%), while others were too embarrassed to talk about it (20%) or felt they would not be believed or taken seriously (24%). Others may even be legally bound to silence by non-disclosure agreements.

Such barriers keep abuses hidden. So, what should employers do?

First, the fundamentals, of course, must be in place. There needs to be strong anti-harassment policies, training of staff to recognise issues and formal procedures for reporting cases.

But it is critical to go beyond this. Companies cannot assume that if nothing is reported then no issues exist. Scratching beneath the surface can reveal dark truths about internal cultures. Therefore, internal engagement is necessary to uncover problems related to gender and equality. Providing a platform for internal conversation that re-balances power would enable employees to raise concerns that otherwise may not be heard.

This should fit within the wider effort on gender equality, since harassment is born out of the same culture that permits other forms of discrimination against women in the workplace. For example, women are still paid less, are less likely to progress within their careers and have lower representation in senior positions than men.

If we are to learn anything from recent scandals, it’s that sexual abuses do not come to light easily. Companies must enable an internal dialogue that re-balances power and uncovers cultural problems that so often hide beneath the surface.

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