Sexual harassment in the workplace – will 2024 be the year things change?

Julie Dennis , Acas Head of Inclusive Workplaces Policy

Julie is a diversity and inclusion specialist with 20 years' experience in the public and voluntary sector. At Acas she's responsible for leading and providing expert advice to build an inclusive culture.

How do 'good' employers find themselves in hot water? Organisations may have policies in place to address sexual harassment, speaking up ambassadors and whistleblowing schemes, Board Champions for women and posters on the walls talking about zero tolerance.

However, the last year has shown they can still find themselves blindsided when allegations are made and prevalence of sexual harassment exposed.

We have all seen cases in the media of well-known organisations who have got it wrong. When they have not shone the light closely enough or asked the right questions. Perhaps not acknowledged that they needed to ask any questions. And we have all seen the reputational (and financial) damage this has caused.

What has been done?

In December, Acas convened partners to better understand the risks of not getting this right, the reasons employers are getting it so wrong and what we can learn from those thinking differently.

The group was made up of leading institutions, social partners, major employers and trade unions, each of whom provided a particular insight and voice. Together we examined: what is the role of the Board to provide assurance on prevalence, actions taken and prevention?

In the UK, the new Worker Protection Act, which comes into effect in October 2024, creates a duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees in the workplace. The group recognised that the new law does not go far enough – but will be a significant step in the right direction.

We also agreed that employers are not yet ready and would need help in preparing for the change.

What are the shared major challenges?

  • Ingrained behaviours that aren't challenged – which means workplaces don't create a psychological safe space which allows all staff to be themselves and disclosures are rare
  • Some solutions have a deleterious effect – for example, a 'zero tolerance' policy will quickly lose the trust of employees if one person feels unheard and similarly, 'champions' only have true value if they have clear objectives and accountability; without these, it's tokenism
  • A clear line of sight for effective reporting can be difficult – this was particularly reported on by larger employers working in multiple countries
  • Trust in employers can be quickly lost – women who are victims of harassment are more than likely to leave the organisation within 18 months, no matter the outcome of the complaint
  • Money is perceived to outweigh people so problems are not aired – attendees gave examples such as finance directors sitting on Boards but not the HR director, and companies celebrating high-performing income-generating staff, no matter the behaviour

What ideas were generated on what Boards could do differently?

Attendees felt that transparency in measurement and reporting is the singular way to escalate and address these problems.

The first clear action for all organisations is to commit to action, to recognise the risks of getting it wrong, but also the rewards of trying and getting it right.

Secondly, there needs to be greater two-way communication between Boards and staff:

  • Boards need to understand the challenges faced by staff. A variety of methods for doing this were suggested, including Boards could include the HR Director, regularly ask for sight of people surveys and polls, and proactively investigate any emerging concerns or red flags. In turn, investors and shareholders should demand this information.
  • Staff need to feel heard. Organisations need effective voice mechanisms – whether that is a published people survey, trade union representation, workers on boards or a shadow Board. If you do not give staff a voice, you are telling your people you do not care what they have to say.

Thirdly, Boards should work out what questions would provide them with the insight on the scale of the issue.

Potential proxy measures you could ask include:

  • What is your staff turnover gender gap?
  • What is the volume of NDAs signed by the employer in the last year (and gender split)?
  • If staff raise a complaint with HR, do they believe it will be resolved?
  • What is the difference between formal grievances lodged and prevalence reported in the staff survey?

What comes next?

This feels like a moment where Boards can see the importance (and critically, the risk of not) paying attention to the challenges. Acas and partners are going to revisit our findings in the coming months and seek to explore options to support employers of all sectors and sizes. And after all, can anybody really afford not to listen?

If you want to be involved, email