It’s time to begin a new era of freedom from sexual harassment
A view from Helen Calcraft

It’s time to begin a new era of freedom from sexual harassment

For many, Freedom Day is as it sounds – a release from the cloistered home office and return to the workplace. But for many women, there’s a darker, more oppressive prospect looming. Adland must not tolerate the return of the old ways.

Well, it's here. Something that has been called Freedom Day. From today, the government is no longer instructing us to work from home and employers can start to plan a return to the workplace. So many of us are weary from working in our kitchens and bedrooms, and while the return to office life will not happen overnight, the first tentative steps towards re-opening are being taken at last.

Those early and occasional days in the office will feel quite different from the work world we left behind. Testing and temperature-taking, hand sanitiser at every desk, social distancing and mask wearing will likely be a constant reminder of the events of the past 18 months.

However, some things, sadly, look like they will pick up where they left off.

A physical return to the office will mean a return of an invidious problem that has been largely missing from people's lives for almost a year – sexual harassment.

Towards the end of 2020, when it briefly looked like we might be getting back in to work, we at TimeTo decided to ask adlanders up and down the country whether they had any concerns about sexual harassment when returning to the office.

Not surprisingly, we found that incidences of sexually motivated bullying had greatly reduced during the pandemic, due to a lack of opportunity for the aggressors. Our research showed that over the lockdown period, 5% of people heard about it, 2% suffered it and 1% witnessed it.

There may have been real issues and challenges with working from home for so many, but at least it created a safe environment for many of those who had previously feared and suffered harassment.

"Working from home during lockdown has meant I can work freely, without fear or even the possibility of sexual harassment," one respondent said.

But, sadly, this is not the win it might seem on the surface. While avoiding aggression, many have been experiencing anxiety about what will happen when a return to physical workspaces occurs. Our research showed that a high proportion of people seem resigned that we'll pretty quickly just return to the old normal.

"It will be pretty much back to normal when we go back in the office," one said. "I think we have only been on 'pause' whilst we have been apart."

In fact, we actually found that 49% of respondents thought sexual harassment would be even more of a problem when businesses return to their offices. And there are a number of reasons for this.

Some respondents worry that time spent away from the office and at home will have led to boundaries about what is appropriate being forgotten. For others, the concern is around "pent up" feelings and emotions leading to an increase in inappropriate behaviour once restrictions are lifted.

You only have to read Zoe Scaman's devastating account of her experiences, followed by the outpouring of grief and trauma from women who too have suffered and have responded to her posts, to be reminded that sexual harassment is not a thing of the past and it will begin again, in plain sight.

There are 283 companies who have signed up to endorse the TimeTo code of conduct, but signing up is not enough. Leaders must be accountable for removing sexual predators and leaders must also take accountability for helping to drive a culture change in our industry.

We're all responsible for setting expectations and boundaries around respect and appropriate behaviour. Together we can, and must, create a culture where sexually motivated bullying is never tolerated, and we must redouble our efforts in working towards a future where sexual harassment is eradicated.

Alongside the training, all companies in our industry can also consider the following ideas and practicalities to help them set a new tone in their organisations:

Social conduct and a zero-tolerance approach. Start with a positive approach by clarifying what constitutes expected behaviour when returning to the office or working a combination of office and working from home. Have a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, alongside all forms of harassment and discrimination.

Safety in the workplace. Both social distancing and having fewer people in the office brings risks and opportunities for harassers. Build lone working into your risk assessments: introduce a buddy system so that everybody's whereabouts is known, and that people can raise the alarm if necessary and know that the leaders will listen and act appropriately.

Continue to be open to people working remotely and ensure you include all work environments, not only the office, as part of the plan to making them safer. Working remotely can allow for some psychological safety but also shouldn't be the solution to sexual harassment.

If anyone has concerns about working in the office, their safety or is in any way apprehensive about transitioning to a new way of working, encourage them to contact the NABS Advice Line on 0800 707 6607

Examine where digital boundaries can be blurred. Clarify these to your teams, for example by promoting the use of official channels, such as Teams, rather than private instant messaging services.

Seek expert guidance to help build new cultures. TimeTo's training gives people a practical understanding of the issues, increasing understanding of what is and isn't acceptable. Taster sessions are available for HR departments of TimeTo endorsing companies. Interested parties should contact timetotraining@nabs.org.uk to sign up.

Lastly, if you have been affected by sexual harassment, you can use the NABS helpline, which will offer heartfelt and unbiased confidential advice and support, on 0800 707 6607.

Helen Calcraft, founder member of TimeTo and founder of Lucky Generals

Industry comment

Stephen Woodford, chief executive, Advertising Association

"Sexual harassment continues to be a significant issue in our industry, and we cannot ignore this fact. We are all very aware that we face substantial challenges when it comes to all aspects of diversity and inclusion.

"It would be all too easy to take our focus off sexual harassment at this time but when we asked if it was important for the industry to focus on tackling the issue, 89% of responders said it was. So we must.

"As we move towards a post-pandemic world, we have the chance to reset, to create a new normal, where nobody has to endure any form of harassment.

"That's why two years ago we worked with NABS and WACL to conduct the research that led to TimeTo being established, so we have the tools and the training to really make a difference."

Kerry Glazer, chair of TimeTo steering groups, and AAR chair

"Lots of people are making plans to celebrate getting their teams back at their local pub. Lots of us can't wait, and the vast majority of us will have a great time. But those who have experienced harassment are worried about the fact that alcohol lowers inhibitions and may lead to aggressors moderating their behaviour less.

"Additionally, offices not being at full capacity and the fact that we haven't seen each other in person for over a year could all contribute to increased instances of sexual harassment. We have to do more to protect people's mental and physical safety. Anyone who is worried can call NABS for impartial and confidential support and advice."

Diana Tickell, chief executive, NABs

"To help achieve an end to harassment, TimeTo now offers an updated Code of Conduct relevant to the hybrid way of working and, crucially, we have created a training programme specifically designed to help change the culture in our industry and achieve our goals.

"We would urge companies to book onto this course as soon as possible. We cannot have a return to the old normal as we return to the office. The time for change is now".

Topics