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Arran Heal


Managing Director

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How to make the Worker Protection Act work for you

The introduction of the Worker Protection Act is an opportunity for HR to take action on sexual harassment in the workplace and shape a better company culture.
person holding dandelion flower representing peace

A tightening of legislation around sexual harassment in the workplace was always likely, given the number and range of cases in the news. Workplaces have been exposed as places where power is abused, where relationships get complicated. And all kinds of organisations have been highlighted: from the CBI to McDonalds.

Research into NHS hospitals suggested 30% of female surgeons in the NHS had been sexually assaulted. While the Government’s Women and Equalities Committee has drawn attention to serious problems with misogyny across the entire music industry, which it described as a “boys’ club” featuring sexual harassment, unequal pay, bullying and discrimination.

Steps to compliance

From October 2024, employers have to demonstrate they have taken “reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees” in order to meet the Worker Protection Act. The wording is open to interpretation — which on the one hand means a problem; there’s no straightforward route to compliance by HR. 

But the vagueness is important. In an area that can be so complex, involving the unpicking tangles of personal relationships and behaviours, there needs to be some flexibility and the use of common sense over hard rules. 

Preventing sexual harassment isn’t as straightforward as enforcing health and safety guidelines and stopping accidents. So, more than just flexibility, it means HR should be doing more than tick boxes. 

The WPA is an opportunity to think, reflect and do something about root causes: why is sexual harassment in the workplace happening? What can be done in practice to change the culture that has allowed it to happen?

There needs to be some flexibility and the use of common sense over hard rules

Getting to the root of the problem

Taking ‘reasonable steps’ might be enough to protect an employer from being taken to an employment tribunal, but will it lead to an improvement in the culture, so that staff feel safe and secure? 

It’s the workplace culture, the everyday experience and evidence, that makes inappropriate behaviour acceptable, and that stops people from speaking up.

The list of reasonable actions might include providing awareness training around sexual harassment, along with 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. 

Another tactic might be to demonstrate a real gender balance at senior levels (reducing the number of men, essentially). On a practical level, measures could be put in place to limit the time junior staff spend with their seniors; the higher risk situations could be avoided by running fewer social events, especially those that involve alcohol.

The emphasis here, however, is on stepping up awareness — when awareness isn’t necessarily the issue. And why should all employees be ‘punished’ with measures that limit opportunities for socialising and working together? 

It’s the workplace culture, the everyday experience and evidence, that makes inappropriate behaviour acceptable

The right environment

Evidence suggests people know there are places to speak up, of course there are, it’s much more a matter of not trusting the organisation’s systems and management to do so without repercussions for themselves and their career. 

It can’t be right or good for performance and productivity to dehumanise workplaces, to limit social interactions and enforce conformity. People need to be able to be themselves.

HR shouldn’t be complying with a standard list of ‘reasonable steps’. Instead, 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 reasonable steps, but because the organisation has a Clear Air Culture that works in balance with the usual systems of power and hierarchy. 

That means a workplace based on trust; one where people feel the psychological safety needed to be open about what might be a sensitive situation, to be honest and have conversations at an earlier stage. A culture that makes constructive forms of challenge a normal and healthy part of how things are done.

It can’t be right or good for performance and productivity to dehumanise workplaces

Encouraging a Clear Air Culture

This kind of culture can be encouraged by: 

  • Making sure the work on creating a Clear Air Culture has active support from senior leadership and involves someone with personal responsibility for delivery
  • Taking 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
  • Emphasising 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 reviewing systems and policies and asking themselves whether they are working and staff at all levels feel able to come forward without concerns about implications for their career
  • Ensuring 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
  • Building up levels of skills among managers in particular when it comes to dealing with sensitive situations and conflict
  • If the situation demands it, demonstrating how there is the commitment to professional, impartial investigations

If you liked this, read: Sexism in the City: How the ‘Boys’ Club’ perpetuates pay gaps

Author Profile Picture
Arran Heal

Managing Director

Read more from Arran Heal

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