Half of UK workplaces have no measures to deal with abuse

09 August 2019 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read

Two years after the #MeToo movement burst onto the scene, progress in UK workplaces has been slow at best, while almost a third of workers in Britain feel their employer’s harassment policies have actually become worse since 2017. According to a new survey, almost half of firms in the country have no measures in place to deal with inappropriate behaviour such as bullying or assault.

At the end of 2017, the world was rocked by allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, with serious accusations being levelled at well-known senior figures across multiple industries. The "#MeToo" movement followed soon after the allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein emerged, though its effects have been far more wide-reaching than the Hollywood bubble. While it initially began as a hash-tag used on social media in October 2017, it has long since morphed into a multifaceted global campaign, demonstrating the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

After the #MeToo movement brought conversations on sexual misconduct to the forefront of the entertainment industry, all other aspects of business swiftly followed. The professional services sector is no exception, and as it attempts to shed its 'old boys club' reputation, even the Big Four recently revealed that they had fired a number of Partners over inappropriate behaviour in the last two years.

However, it would be wrong to paint this as a watershed moment which is leading in a straight line toward workplace equality. Advancing the discussion of why #MeToo exists today, a new study from Equality Group – a professional services firm which helps companies source, retain and develop diverse talent – has shown that many workers feel their employers have actually rowed backward on the issue of workplace harassment since the #MeToo watershed of 2017.

Half of UK workplaces have no measures to deal with abuse

In line with a BBC poll of British staff two years ago, Equality Group still found that roughly half of all women had experienced harassment/bullying/inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and not reported it. The new data extracted from a sample of 2,000 UK adults – and nationally representative of the UK population for regional, gender and age demographics and validated by the British Polling Council – found that 21% of those who had encountered abuse had suffered #MeToo type harassment, the same amount as those who encountered catcalling and or wolf whistling.

Despite the severity of this, many cases went unreported, and a third of women (34%) were confused as to whether incidents that made them feel uncomfortable in the workplace should have been reported (while 26% of men harassed were similarly unaware). At the same time, an alarming 34% of women also felt worried that reporting harassment could negatively impact their career progression or create an uncomfortable working environment.

Even after two years of a prominent global campaign against workplace abuse – featuring a number of high profile public figures calling on survivors to stand against their abusers – many women do not feel empowered to bring up their own trauma. Investigating why this might be, Equality Group uncovered a problematic trend among the workplace policies of many UK employers. 44% of respondents confided that their workplace still has no measures in place to deal with issues such as harassment, bullying or inappropriate behaviour, while only 13% believed their workplace had improved on this front since the launch of the #MeToo campaign.

Two steps back

Poorer still, while 31% of respondents stated they believed the policies of their workplace to combat abuse were enough, the same portion said they feel their workplace has become worse since the rise of the #MeToo movement. Looking at these figures, it seems clear that simply relying on the upper echelons of companies to take action on this issue is not yielding sufficient change.

Hephzi Pemberton, Founder of Equality Group commented on the findings, “As a society, we should be striving to stamp out harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace by creating and implementing positive policies. While the situation has almost certainly improved, there are still a number of steps that workplaces need to take to improve their working culture. Bringing in diverse talent at senior levels, in terms of women and BAME professionals, to bring new ideas to boards and leadership teams across the country can undoubtedly change working cultures for the better.”

When it comes to making progress on the matter of #MeToo, Equality Group issued a number of starting points with its report. It recommended an effective level of bystander responsibility, with businesses making workers feel empowered to call out inappropriate behaviour by others in the workplace. At the same time, clearer policies on #MeToo issues should seek to remove ‘grey zones’ around acceptable conduct, and workplaces should host open forum discussions to help workers come to an understanding of these points. 

At the same time, when considering what is to be done, nearly half of the UK workforce feels that men should be more involved in providing a practical solution for the issues raised in the #MeToo movement. The study found that the figures yielded by the survey represented “a distinct lack of awareness across both gender sets” as to what constituted as a #MeToo issue, if the issue should be reported, and how workplaces can progress. Equality Group therefore concluded that broadly, men need to be more vocal about the movement, and their place within it, and this can only be done if they are included in the conversation.