Responding to sexual harassment in the retail workplace

A recent survey from regional law firm Foot Anstey found just over 1 in 10 (11%) retail workers have experienced “inappropriate touching of a sexual nature” in their current role – with over a third (36%) of those workers believing their employer “could have done more” to prevent it happening. 

Averaged out this means a figure of 11% represents 319,000 workers in the UK’s retail sector. These shocking figures come after high profile claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace behaviour by Arcadia boss and retail billionaire Philip Green  and Ted Baker founder Ray Kelvin. 

Kelvin resigned from his position as CEO and director of the fashion retailer with immediate effect earlier this year for his involvement in a regime of “forced hugs”. More than 60 current or former members of staff are understood to have come forward on the employee campaigning platform Organise. The extent of the alleged behaviour included kissing ears and giving unwanted hugs and shoulder massages.

“Eye-catching as these figures are, I think I need to be honest and say they confirm the suspicions of anyone working in employment law. I hope they bring to life that quality training for managers in reputation-damaging issues is more important than ever. Business leaders want to see an end to the kind of behaviour this study reveals, says Patrick Howarth, head of retail and consumer at Foot Anstey. 

“Our survey shows the majority of sexual harassment comes from within the business. In Employment Tribunals the instigator is overwhelmingly more senior than the person making the complaint.”

The study also found around a quarter (24%) believe their current employer does not care about protecting them from inappropriate behaviour and 41% of employees who raised a complaint said they were dissatisfied with the outcome.

Howarth added: “Many managers are promoted on the basis of technical abilities and are not equipped with the leadership skills to deal with harassment – or even recognise it when they see it. That’s no one’s fault. The important thing is to change it.”

So what should retailers do? 

One of the many organisations that can help those affected by sexual harassment in the retail workplace is The Survivors Trust, a national umbrella agency for over 125 specialist voluntary sector agencies throughout the UK and Ireland providing a range of counselling, therapeutic and support services working with women, men and children who are victims/survivors of rape, child sexual abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment.

 Below Linda Lewis, the training and development manager at the Survivors Trust, outlines the steps a retailer should take once an alleged instance of inappropriate behaviour has been reported.

1) The correct system in place

It is very important that staff are trained and are aware in case a situation of inappropriate behaviour takes place in the workplace. There needs to be a system where people can whistleblow and feel comfortable and supported to do so. It needs to be clear what policies and measures are in place to support somebody wanting to disclose that something inappropriate is going on and who needs to be informed. The workplace should retain a clear zero tolerance policy on issues surrounding sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace in order to set the boundaries for safe working practices from the outset.

Guidelines need to instruct that every complaint should be taken seriously, and should be a priority with a full investigation carried out into the accusation. It is good practice for investigations into sexual harassment complaints to use the “balance of probability” framework used in English Civil Law disputes. Any allegations of a serious sexual assault should not be investigated by the employer as it is a police matter. However, the complainant should be supported whatever their decision and be offered the details of their local rape and sexual abuse support centre which can be found on the Survivors Trust website.

2) Collecting evidence 

After all the evidence has been collated and interviews have taken place it needs to be considered whether the alleged event has taken place or not. To ensure the investigation is a fair and unbiased  process it is vital to have one trained investigator conduct the interviews and collect all the evidence and have another party, not directly involved to review the evidence and make a final decision. This allows for the judgement to be impartial and unprejudiced.

3) Employee welfare

Throughout the entire process the welfare of the victim, the alleged perpetrator and any witnesses need to remain a priority. This can be done with one-to-one meetings and regular check-ins to see how they are as there is usually a change in the team dynamics once an allegation is made which can leave people feeling uncomfortable in their work environment. The retailer needs to tactfully support the team so they can continue to work productively and respectively.

During the investigation the complainant must be allowed to be listened to fully, taken seriously and asked questions on how you as an employer can help them. If they are dealing with any anxiety, stress or any mental health problems some aftercare may be required and it is about giving individuals the contacts of local rape and sexual abuse organisations and helplines in case they need to seek outward support or to suggest they seek the support of their GP.

Additionally checking in with the alleged perpetrator is just as significant – the investigation will impact them too and their mental health may also be compromised.

4) Mitigation

The length of the investigation depends on the severity of the actions alleged, and some may be more complex and need a greater period of time.

During the investigation, it needs to be considered how the two are going to work together whilst it is underway and further to that, at the end of the investigation if there has been finding of some inappropriate behaviour but one that doesn’t merit dismissal, a record needs to be kept that the perpetrator have been reprimanded and on a probation period.

After that there needs to be consideration on how the two can work together in order to ensure they feel safe and comfortable and also for productivity to remain positive.  Where possible reasonable steps should be put in place such as moving the perpetrator to another team. If this isn’t possible mediation could be a useful tool for minimising further conflict.

It is imperative the complainant feels there has been some form of justice in how their complaint has been handled. Sometimes this can be difficult especially in cases where there is insufficient evidence to determine the alleged perpetrator did act inappropriately. The employer must therefore manage the expectations of the complainant at all times and display respect and sensitivity for the feelings of the complainant. It comes down to asking, listening and following up with actions and everybody within the organisation being fully aware of their responsibility to work in a dignified manner.

5)  Follow up

Once a decision has been made the retailers responsibility does not end there. Each individual needs to be checked during the following days and weeks. Each complainant will feel different, some may feel happy receiving an apology and knowing the individual has been reprimanded, but for others they may feel the punishment doesn’t fit with their expectations. It is important the employer considers these issues and finds ways to try and resolve this. The employer has a duty of care to their employees and so reasonable steps must be put in place to support any lasting mental health difficulties that could arise after these types of incidents.

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