Should there be a restorative response to sexual harassment?

Last week, following the Article 50 vote in the House of Commons, it was widely reported that the secretary of state for Brexit, David Davis, tried to kiss the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who had reluctantly supported the government’s Bill. In response, she reportedly told him to ‘fuck off’. Much of the coverage highlighted Abbot’s strongly worded reply, despite efforts by some to focus attention on Davis’s behaviour. Was it sexual harassment? Without knowing the tone or context, it’s impossible to say. But trying to kiss an unwilling colleague is surely unacceptable behaviour in any workplace.

Whatever happened in that particular incident, sexual harassment is undoubtedly a serious problem for women in many workplaces. Harriet Harman’s recent descriptions of being sexually harassed on three separate occasions – which, inexplicably, the Daily Mail implied was beyond belief – are just the latest in a long line of depressing reports from women in public life. And this is by no means something that only high profile women have to deal with. A TUC survey carried out last year found that more than half (52%) of women, and nearly two-thirds (63%) of women aged 18-24 years old, said that they had experienced sexual harassment at work.

This is shocking and it should go without saying that this behaviour is wholly unacceptable - it should never be tolerated or excused. It’s not just ‘locker room banter’, whatever the current occupant of the White House might say. It is a serious problem, and addressing it should be a priority. Prevention is the key and recent reports that sex education may after all become mandatory is therefore entirely welcome. It surely shouldn’t be beyond us to ensure that in the future all workplaces are genuinely free of sexual harassment.

In the meantime, though, we need to think about how we respond to this behaviour when it takes place. If and when a criminal offence has occurred, this should be reported to police. The fact that an incident takes place between colleagues should not shield the perpetrator from having to face prosecution. Disciplinary procedures must also be conducted, in line with the employer’s HR policies. It must be crystal clear that a complaint about sexual harassment is being taken very seriously indeed.

Within this context, what role should restorative practice play, if any? We know that more employers are starting to look at how restorative practice can be integrated into their HR procedures. For example, the latest edition of Resolution - available to our members here - has an article on Surrey County Council’s experiences of embedding restorative approaches into their HR function. They’ve had significant success, but can this approach be applied to cases involving sexual harassment?

I think that it can, albeit with some significant caveats. Victims of sexual harassment may, like anybody who has experienced harm, have things that they want to say to the perpetrator and questions that they want to ask. A restorative meeting can be an opportunity to do this in a safe and structured environment. It can be also be an opportunity to ensure that the perpetrator understands the impact of their actions – an opportunity to educate those people who think this sort of behaviour is harmless fun, when it is clearly neither. Things said or done in the heat of the moment, perhaps in front of others, may no longer seem so funny or harmless when sat opposite the upset, angry recipient.

The caveats, though, are important. First, as with any restorative process, participation must be voluntary. No victim should ever be pressurised into taking part, by HR procedures or for any other reason. They should also be able to pull out at any time. Second, the process must be managed by a facilitator with the right skills and experience. It can’t be an HR officer with a rough idea of how restorative practice works. It must be a properly trained facilitator who can safely manage the complex dynamics and power imbalances of both workplace relationships and sexual harm.

Where these considerations are taken on board, though, I think that there is a role for restorative practice in helping to combat sexual harassment. Delivered to a high standard, it can undoubtedly help victims to put the experience behind them and move on, while also confronting the perpetrator with the consequences of their actions and hopefully therefore lessening the chance of them acting in that way again.

No woman should be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter. Current levels of prevalence are a disgrace. The stories I hear from female colleagues, friends and family members make me genuinely angry. But where it does occur we need an effective response, and restorative practice can form a central part of that.