The Worker Protection Act will become law this year, meaning employers have to demonstrate they have taken “reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees”, highlights Arran Heal.

Vague wording provides some flexibility for common sense over cases and the basic differences between organisations, resources and ways of working — but it also means the new Act won’t be a straightforward matter of functional compliance by HR.

There needs to be some thought and reflection over the issues, why and how forms of sexual harassment in the workplace appear to be so common, and what the actual long-term solution might be; rather than just adopting a policy from a template, bolting on an addition to current practice.

The passing of the Worker Protection Bill in 2023 was no surprise, given the context of another spate of high-profile stories relating to the full range of different employers, at the CBI, McDonalds, Odey Asset Management, and research that suggested 30 percent of female surgeons in the NHS had been sexually assaulted.

Preventing sexual harassment is not as simple as taking steps to prevent accidents in the workplace. Cases are messy, bound up with issues of power and different kinds of relationships, personalities and perceptions.

Taking “reasonable steps”

So, taking those “reasonable steps” might be enough to protect an employer from employment tribunals or the threat of prosecution, but will they do anything about the root causes: the culture that makes obviously inappropriate behaviour acceptable; and doesn’t allow people to speak up, to stop situations from becoming more difficult and serious until it’s too late?

Reasonable actions might be to provide awareness training around sexual harassment. Internal comms to make sure staff at all levels are aware of the channels for speaking up, whether that’s to a line manager, HR, an EAP, Mental Health First Aider or another special listening service. Maybe improving the gender balance at senior levels (reducing the number of men, essentially.

Limiting the number of social events and availability of alcohol; making sure more junior staff don’t need to work alone with seniors.

A lack of awareness

All of these might be sensible and lead to a reduction in opportunities for poor behaviours and potential for harassment. But is there any lack of awareness? Evidence has always shown it’s been much more of a case of people not feeling able to speak up rather than the lack of channels to do so. And it can’t be right or good for performance and productivity to de-humanise workplaces, to limit social interactions and force conformity. Feelings of a lack of belonging, of being an isolated work unit, are already enough of a problem for organisations as it is.

Rather than drawing up a list of most common “reasonable steps” and following what’s looking like best practice among comparable employers, HR can use the Worker Protection Act as an opportunity for competitive advantage; by creating an environment where sexual harassment is very unlikely — not because of those basic reasonable steps, but because it involves a Clear Air Culture.

That means a workplace that is willing to open up, encourage honesty and more conversations that deal with root issues of power and inequality, making constructive forms of challenge a normal and healthy part of how things are done.

In practice:

  • Make sure the work on creating a Clear Air Culture has active support from senior leadership and involves someone with personal responsibility for delivery.
  • Take time to understand what’s happening in the workplace environment, making use of an approach like neutral assessment within teams to get to the truth around relationships, attitudes to speaking out and feelings of psychological safety.
  • Emphasise that preventing sexual harassment isn’t the job of the organisation or HR but a matter of individual personal responsibility among all staff members; everyone will benefit from being part of a Clear Air Culture.
  • HR teams need to review systems and policies and ask themselves whether they are working, do staff at all levels feel able to come forward without concerns about implications for their career.
  • Ensure there are trained staff able to provide mediation, not as a last resort when there is a serious conflict, but as a typical means of dealing with grievances.
  • Build up levels of skills among managers in particular when it comes to dealing with sensitive situations and conflict
  • If the situation demands it, demonstrate how there is the commitment to professional, impartial investigations.

Where there is a core of openness and trust at the heart of relationships and management, the idea of sexual harassment in the workplace will become something alien and unthinkable.


Arran Heal is Managing Director at workplace relationships expert CMP.





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Arran Heal is Managing Director at workplace relationships specialists CMP. CMP is a pioneer of approaches to conflict management and works to improve workplace relationships - a prime mover in the development and adoption of professional approaches to mediation services, investigations and Conversational Intelligence. For the past 25 years it has been working with some of the UK"s biggest employers, including the NHS, British Army, government departments and universities.