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Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The new International Labour Organisation convention on violence and harassment at work is long overdue. It is over 4 years since the allegations about Weinstein broke and the #metoo movement highlighted how prevalent sexual harassment in the workplace is across all industries and across the world.

And yet we still have headlines pertaining to sexual harassment in the workplace breaking regularly. For example,

The good news then is that the International Labour Organization (the UN agency which brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member States, to set labor standards, develop policies and devise programs promoting decent work for all) has issued their violence and harassment convention. This is a treaty that spells out the duty employers have to prevent violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and is due to come into force in 2023.      

What is particularly valuable is the clarity they bring to what constitutes ‘the workplace’. 

They make it abundantly clear that this includes work trips, travel, training settings, events and social activities – as well as through work-related communications, including “those enabled by information and communication technologies.

It is easy to assume that a team gathering after work in a bar to celebrate hitting a target, a gala event to which clients have been invited, or a casual work WhatsApp group are somehow outside the usual scope of work. They are not.

The treaty also makes it clear that employers are responsible for preventing harassment by clients and third parties. This is a welcome clarification. According to TUC research in the UK, 13% of young women (age 18-24) said they had been harassed by a third party.

But it isn’t enough to have this responsibility spelled out. Employers need to support team members and managers to know what to do – especially when clients are involved. 

How many team members would feel confident in knocking back an advance from a key client with all the power dynamics at play and the risk of jeopardizing revenue, for example? 

How many managers would know how to step in when one of their team is being verbally abused by a customer?

The convention also states “employers and workers and their organizations, and relevant authorities, are provided with guidance, resources, training or other tools, in accessible formats as appropriate, on violence and harassment in the world of work, including on gender-based violence and harassment; and initiatives, including awareness-raising campaigns, are undertaken.” 

The requirement to offer training is unequivocal.  And yet in a 2020 UK government survey on sexual harassment, 52% of respondents said they “thought or knew” that their organization didn’t provide training on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Over half of UK organizations are therefore potentially not equipping their people to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

This has to change.

It starts with raising awareness of what harassment, sexual harassment and bullying are, but it can’t stop there. We need to help organizations develop respectful inclusive cultures where behavior doesn’t cross the line in the first place and we need to develop skills and confidence to address situations when it does. 

Forward-thinking organizations won’t wait for the ILO convention to come into force next year. They will take action now. 


Our brand new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion collection includes lessons on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. Explore the collection

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