How to manage sexism and misogyny in the workplace

In this guest article, Jo Handler a Senior Associate specialising in employment law at Forbes Solicitors, looks at how employers can manage sexism and misogyny in the workplace.

Issues of sexism at work go considerably beyond matters of unacceptability and possible wrongdoing for employers. Claims of sexist behaviour can prove extremely complex and have far-reaching implications that may create toxic workplace environments and damage the reputation of employers and individuals involved. Recent allegations made about Angela Rayner put this into perspective.

A newspaper article alleged that the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party uses her body to distract the Prime Minister in parliament. The article received more than 6,000 complaints, which have since been rejected by the press watchdog. It’s also led to a public war of words between the Labour and Conservative parties and a call for the Tory party to investigate where sexist claims originated and subsequent reports that it was Ms Rayner who was responsible for the newspaper article.

Whilst it’s difficult to know the full truth behind this series of events, there’s no disputing that sexist and misogynistic claims have negatively impacted several people and organisations. Employers cannot stop such claims arising in their workplaces. However, they can take steps to prevent them and avoid the toxicity of sexist behaviour.

Prevention starts with policies

Jo Handler, Forbes Solicitors

Jo Handler

It’s ultimately down to individual employees how they act, and no employer can ultimately prevent harassment, bullying or discrimination at work. This aside, employers do have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment for staff and should take all reasonable steps to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of employees. Failure to do so could, in some cases, lead to an employer also being held responsible for acts of discrimination against employees.

Businesses should, at the very least, have clear anti-discrimination policies in place, such as anti-harassment or Equality and Diversity. This provides a good starting point for clearly outlining the expected conduct of employees and giving clear examples of unacceptable behaviour. Additionally, the policy should state that acts of discrimination won’t be tolerated and the steps that will be taken to address matters, such as disciplinary action.

It is easy to treat policies as an administrative burden or a box-ticking exercise. This is far from the truth. A robust policy, which is regularly reviewed, updated and communicated to staff via relevant training, can provide something of a blueprint for strategies and tactics that create a more positive working culture, which should help reduce instances of discrimination.

Putting policies into practice

Anti-discrimination policies require three key actions to make them a success. Firstly, clear terms of reference about the scope of the policy and the procedure for dealing with issues; secondly, effective communication and training staff; and thirdly, a willingness to consistently apply the policy. Such policies should not be static and need to be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure that they are current and effective.

Regular mandatory training about the purpose and content of the policy will promote clarity and understanding amongst employees about what’s not acceptable in the workplace. Supporting this with open lines of communication and supportive mechanisms will help create confidence amongst employees that they can share concerns. It can also enable more early action during an instance of discrimination, preventing an issue from festering and becoming increasingly worse.

Where any complaints are raised, ensuring a zero-tolerance approach towards discrimination should act as a strong deterrent and help reduce similar events happening in the future. Dealing with claims of sexism in a carefully considered and structured way enables any appropriate disciplinary action to be taken, both decisively and in a timely manner. This will reinforce a company’s anti-discrimination policy amongst staff, which can minimise any negative speculation and discontent about how claims are addressed and act as a constructive reminder that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated.

Is the claim part of a workplace culture problem?

The claims made against Angela Rayner also prompted calls for a ‘culture change’ in parliament to address wider issues of sexism and misogyny. While this may or may not be required, it’s a suggestion that employers should take note of when facing claims of sexism.

In many cases, a keenness to support employees and act appropriately during an act of discrimination can see attention solely focused on the issue at hand. This can mean the claim is treated in isolation when it might be a problem that’s part of a wider issue.

With the right approach, companies can use information obtained when addressing informal concerns or dealing with formal grievance procedures, to better understand if issues of sexist behaviour stretch beyond the immediate claim being made. Sensitive and considerate steps will have to be taken to achieve this. However, it can be an effective way of addressing any underlying workplace culture problems and determining if an employer can do more to protect themselves and their employees against discrimination.