The whole Jimmy Savile scandal has made people think about sexual harassment at work.

The workplace has changed since the 70s and 80s 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, but it is still a problem.

Sexual harassment continues to be a subject difficult to speak out about. This is despite the fact that public sector organisations have explicit procedures for tackling complaints and – in theory at least – a no-tolerance policy.

‘If you are a victim of sexual harassment, homophobic bullying or racism who do you turn to? Not your line manager’

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 while looking to leave the organisation and you will feel very stressed. You may go off sick with the stress of it all, at which point your manager will instigate disciplinary action for poor performance.

It’s often at this point that people approach their trade union.

Shifting the balance

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, inexperienced 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 policies and procedures could be effective if it is left to the individual to challenge their manger unsupported.

In a pickle

I am therefore very concerned to learn that local government secretary Eric Pickles 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 to let the unions pay for their own staff. This is in response to the established practice 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?