The whole Jimmy Savile scandal has made people think about sexual harassment at work. The work place has changed since the 70’s and 80’s and many people assumed that even if there is still a pay gap between men and women sexual harassment was a thing of the past. So you might be surprised that the Equal Opportunity Commission reported in 2000 that 50% of women still experience sexual harassment at work.
Sexual harassment continues to be a subject difficult to speak out about despite the fact that public sector organisations have explicit procedures for tackling harassment complaints and like racism, in theory any way, a no tolerance policy. So if you are a victim of sexual harassment, homophobic bullying or racism who do you turn to? Not your line manager because they are either the perpetrator or they have ignored the behaviour or dismissed your concerns as an overreaction or a personality conflict. Not HR because the first thing they will do is tell your manger and in any case HR just want to protect the good name of the organisation. You will probably try and ignore it whilst looking to leave the organisation and you will feel very stressed. It’s often at this point that people approach their trade union. Their off sick with stress with the stress of it all at which point their manager retaliates by instigating disciplinary action for poor performance.
A trade union evens up the power imbalance between the employee and their manager. A trade union rep will get a positive response from HR. And if the situation can’t be resolved informally with a four way meeting then the trade union will guide and support you through the formal process. From this point on it is no longer just about you and your manager. The circumstances will be put before a more senior manager, you may still not get the outcome you want but as senior manager who has heard dozens of grievances the support of your trade union will guarantee exposure to a wider audience.
As a senior manager I thought and continue to think the involvement of a trade union is a good thing. Some managers are weak and guilty of failing to challenge unacceptable behaviour, inexperience mangers can fail to spot the underlying sexism/ racism/ homophobia and dismiss the complaints as a personality conflict and a small number of mangers behave in a totally unacceptable way. It is difficult to see how even the strongest commitment by senior management and the clearest polices and procedure could be effective if it is left to the individual to challenge their manger unsupported.
I am therefore very concerned to learn the Eric Pickles the minister for local government is encouraging local authorities to reduce the time they allow employees who are trade union reps to spend on union business. Pickles rallying cry is let the unions pay for their own staff. This is in response to the established practise of giving union reps time during their working hours to help their members. I don’t believe any organisation can be serious about tackling sexual harassment, racism or homophobic bullying if it does not give its employees access to the type of support they need to use the procedures that are intended to stop this type of abuse. That support cannot come from the line manager if they are the perpetrator or if they have already failed to act. It cannot come from HR as they are also advising management but it can come from an experience and appropriately trained trade union rep.
There is a saying than an organisation gets the trade union it deserves well what sort of an organisation has grand sounding policies, clear and robust procedures yet makes it difficult for staff to use them?
Blair McPherson author of An Elephant in the room about implementing equality and diversity in a large complex public sector organisation published by Russell House www.blairmcpherson.co.uk