Sexual harassment in a pandemic: why staff are more vulnerable


Lone working could increase the risk of sexual harrassment. Image: Shutterstock

With fewer people in the office and the increased likelihood of lone working and online abuse, there is a heightened risk of sexual harassment. Maria Strauss outlines a 10-point plan that should help HR teams tackle this.

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and is usually easy to recognise. Behaviour including “jokes”, “banter”, sexual comments, graphic pictures, leering, gestures, being propositioned, sending sexually explicit messages, unwanted touching, hugging, kissing and, the more serious, sexual assault – which may also be criminal – can all amount to sexual harassment.

At its core, it’s an abuse of power, and not simply older men harassing their younger female colleagues in an office setting – or Hollywood, for that matter. Indeed, sexual harassment can impact anyone; it can intersect with racial discrimination and also with harassment on grounds of sexual orientation.

The damaging consequences are well known. For an employe it could result in ill-health, depression and loss of sleep, to feelings of mistrust, humiliation and anger – all of which affect their ability to work.

But sexual harassment also impacts the business. It can create low morale, poor opinions of colleagues, loss of talented employees, costly grievances or tribunal cases and damage to the business reputation.

Changing environments

Since #MeToo, we are now in a very different world. Enter a pandemic, and life as we knew it shifted again.

The Covid-19 restrictions put new pressures on nearly every workplace, with the disruption likely meaning less focus on tackling issues in areas, such as sexual harassment.

Simultaneously, risk increased. For instance, the new working realities necessitated by the pandemic have heightened known sexual harassment risk factors such as lone, flexible and late-night working, as well as isolated workplaces.

Such factors have increased because:

  1. The uptick in flexible, agile and remote working can mean more opportunity for online harassment, less supervision and potentially more scope for accessing colleagues at all times of the day on a one-to-one basis
  2. Social distancing and government guidelines means less of us are present to witness or challenge inappropriate behaviour or simply even act as a deterrent by being there
  3. The economic downturn and redundancies will likely lead to an increase in the use of freelancers and contractors, who may not fully understand the culture of the business. Not knowing how to report an issue or not reporting because of being fearful of losing work can also make them vulnerable themselves.

We should also be wary of further contextual risk factors in the near future. For example, many employers are considering permanent office closure, redundancies and restructures. These types of significant business change can be contentious, allegiances can form, and grievances may develop.

A 10-point plan for HR

So, what can be done? Following these 10 steps will assist HR teams in stamping out sexual harassment during such a volatile time.

  1. Consider the above risk factors and reflect on whether your business is now more susceptible due to Covid-19; review risk registers and consider mitigating steps.
  2. Reflect on the reasons why someone might not speak up about harassment, such as “I didn’t think anyone would do anything” or “I didn’t know it was harassment”, and whether such excuses would be given in your business.
  3. Review the following:
    • The EHRC technical guidance on harassment, which contains lots of practical suggestions and case examples
    • Codes of Conduct, which should set out the expected standards of behaviour, without ambiguity
    • Disciplinary policies, to ensure that you are clearly able to discipline for online transgressions as well as harassment in the physical workplace
    • Confidentiality clauses (non-disclosure agreements) in employment contracts or settlement agreements to ensure that these are in line with Acas guidance and EHRC guidance
    • Training materials to remind everyone of expected standards of behaviour and what constitutes sexual harassment.
  4. Take steps to raise the profile of HR so that they are a visible presence in the business despite the changed working practices.
  5. Check whether everyone in the business, including third parties, knows how to raise concerns and what will happen once they do.
  6. Continue to help the board embed the culture and values of the organisation from first interview to the last day of employment so that every member of the business is aware that harassment is not tolerated.
  7. Consider carrying out bystander training to equip employees to safely challenge inappropriate behaviour when they see or hear it and signpost how to escalate concerns. Encourage the reporting of lower level issues, as these can escalate and be symptomatic of a bigger problem, remembering that these can still be humiliating and harassment as legally defined.
  8. Support employees to report cases to the police and/or report serious allegations to the police yourselves. Consider the many organisations who don’t report such matters and are accused of a “cover-up”.
  9. As always, take concerns and allegations seriously, whether online or in the physical workspace, and investigate properly in line with procedure. Responding to concerns and allegations is critical to ensuring that workers have the confidence to raise them, leading to a safer and more transparent culture.
  10. Finally, listen and act on rumours: as simple as asking “is everything ok with Miss Jones?”

Sexual harassment is by no means a new subject, but HR teams should be conscious of the risks associated with the disruption caused by Covid-19. Following a plan such as the above will be essential to creating safe working environments.

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Maria Strauss

About Maria Strauss

Maria Strauss is an employment and safeguarding partner at law firm Farrer & Co.


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