How to make your workers feel safer from sexual harassment as we return to offices

How businesses can begin to tackle sexual harassment - if they haven’t already.

Stephen Woodford, CEO of the UK Advertising Association and one of the founders of timeTo, a coalition of three UK advertising and marketing bodies set up to tackle sexual harassment in advertising, explores some ways in which businesses can begin to tackle sexual harassment - if they haven’t already.

As workers return to their offices as businesses open up again, we need to think about some of the old challenges re-emerging - because sexual harassment will sadly be returning as well.

That’s what people in advertising think anyway. And they are scared and worried about it. Especially after the drop-off in cases of harassment during lockdown. 

To try and quantify this we did some research and found that almost half of people were worried about the return of sexual harassment, citing reasons such as "pent up aggression, anxiety and anger" and "boundaries about what is appropriate being forgotten" as potential causes.

One respondent said: 

It will be pretty much back to normal when we go back to the office.

While another said:

I think we have only been on ‘pause’ whilst we have been apart. We still need to fundamentally change the way we work together.

And I think it’s the person above’s final point that deserves repetition, that we need to take heed of most closely.

We still need to fundamentally change the way we work together.

This comment has not come from a business leader or trade association head or someone who is paid to think about and activate changes in how we work, but from someone who simply works in our industry. Everyone can see it's time for a change, and there will be people (a growing number of people) who think like this in every business.

We also used this research as the basis of our most recent campaign, which launched last year, using real-life stories and eerily empty offices to really drive home the point that sexual harassment still happens.

So this is a call out to all business leaders, when creating your back to work safety plans, or planning for the rest of the year, make sure tackling sexual harassment is not just included in those plans, but is a key focus point. Because your employees certainly think it is. And surely, as is often said, our talent is our most important resource, and listening to their concerns and aspirations will create the kind of places they are proud of and feel safe working in.

Because if half of them are worried about being sexually harassed, why would they work for you if you don’t look to be doing anything about it? Conversely, if they do see action on this from their leadership, how much more positively will they feel about the company they work for?

As other businesses begin taking tackling sexual harassment more seriously, talent will want to work for those businesses. They want employers that understand the issues and that they are working hard to make them feel safe.

With that in mind here are some ways in which businesses can begin to tackle sexual harassment - if they haven’t already.

  • It’s not just about keeping the conversations to the senior team, but about engaging the whole business. Open up the conversation to everyone and give everyone the chance to talk. But remember, people won't feel safe to speak unless you create a mechanism or safe space for them to do so.
  • Remember, that even 'small things' can be disempowering, so look to create a climate where it’s not about pointing fingers, but create a culture of ownership and accountability with shared learnings, rather than blame and shame. Make people feel like you are moving forward together.
  • Don’t be scared to open up even if you think it looks like admitting you have a problem. It’s better to address it than ignore it or cover it up – or even suspect it's happening but not want to confront it. It’s fearless to confront it, but foolhardy not to.
  • Ensure everyone gets a voice and has the confidence to be an active ally. Make sure you include men, transgender and non-binary people in the conversation, as well as women. Research shows LGBTQ+ people and other minority communities are more at risk of sexual harassment.
  • All this is built into the timeTo training in the UK and if you really want to 'fundamentally change the way we all work together', sign up now.

Finally, if you work in a business and don’t think your company is doing enough to address these challenges, don’t be silent. Speak to colleagues and managers and see if others share your concerns - it is very likely they will. You can also contact NABS’ confidential Advice Line and talk to one of their expert team, who can give you confidential guidance on what to do. Change is coming, and the more leaders recognise this and the more voices speak up, the quicker it will happen.

Stephen Woodford is CEO of the Advertising Association.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.


Last updated 01 May 2024