Security glitches, IT budgets, network issues and interference from bosses : IT managers have plenty of problems in their working life. Now, it appears that they might have another one, as a new survey from the Equal Opportunities Commission has revealed that employers have been ignoring the increasing problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.

An employer in the UK may have to face recruitment costs of over £10,000 for losing a senior manager or director to sexual harassment – even if it be via email –warns the survey. What makes the problem even more obscure is that it is not the employer being able to dictate what is sexual harassment but the employee. Yet some simple guidelines and the use of some monitoring products could save a lot of hassle.

The EOC research, complete results of which will be published towards the year-end, presses the need for employers to have stringent policies regarding use of email in the office. A spokeswoman from the EOC identified the trend to be caused by the growing use of technology applications by employees. "Everybody these days uses email, cell phones and instant messaging devices," she said.

Email use and abuse
Andy Churley, VP marketing at PixAlert – which monitors inappropriate images on desktop PCs, email attachments and communal servers – said: "Email is a threat because employees using corporate email could circulate illegal or illicit material, with the corporation having absolutely no control."

Take the ‘Swire effect’ for instance, said Churley. Search engines on the Internet throw up thousands of results for Claire Swire, who in 2000, sent an intimate email to her boyfriend. He in turn forwarded it to six friends and by the end of that week, over 20,000 people seemed to have read her personal message.

“The issue is more widespread now because organisations are waking up to threats of reputational risks … sexual harassment cases can have serious effects on a company’s brand and business,” he added. PixAlert, which began operations six years ago, has come across harassment ranging from bullying (weight-related abuse, drugs etc), digital pornography, and even racial and injury related images being circulated in the office.

Churley identified three reasons for the increase in sexual harassment via email

  • Poor monitoring of software and controls
  • Failure to communicate organisation policies
  • Failure to communicate to staff about personal responsibilities

Caroline Slocock, chief executive, EOC, said: "While technology has improved our lives and changed the way we work, it has also opened up a new forum for sexual harassment - one that can fall below the radar screen of even the most vigilant employers. Based on complaints to our helpline, we know e-mail can be used for a range of activities, from sending lewd jokes around the office, to more insidious and targeted harassment, including sending e-mails to individuals laden with sexual innuendo.

"In the modern workplace, this is a significant new issue for employers, who have a real interest in protecting their employees - their most valuable asset - from unwelcome harassment. It is important for employers to have clear and well communicated policies regarding the appropriate use of IT, and to take complaints seriously."

The EOC report ranked victims of (email) sexual harassment in the workplace as one of the top five callers in 2005-6. These ranged from complains about a manager emailing the caller with sexual innuendos, a colleague at the workplace circulating email to all employees that said "All women should shut up," to bosses sending offensive sexual content, and more. Interestingly, many of the complainants were men, says the report.

Monitoring email is not difficult
Churley said that it was important for a manager to monitor and audit what is going on in the organisation. "Typically, organisations tend to block the gateway for inappropriate wording, email or virus, but they don’t always scan all material that is going out of their office."

He added: "One of the reasons to actually monitor (employee email) is that there are applications available that can 'block' inappropriate images on the screen, which is fairly straightforward. PixAlert also offers the employees to make a value judgment about whether or not to view a certain image, without inadvertedly exposing him or her to it. This can be done by 'blurring' the image."

PixAlert has had a growing list of clients especially in the last two years. "As organisations begin to see the severity of the likely threat and the feasibility of how to tackle it, they realise it can be more than a financial risk and enforce policy decisions," said Churley.

EOC guidelines
"Sexual harassment is an issue far too many people think has gone away because it is still so under-reported. Twenty years after Jean Porcelli (Scottish school worker who was regularly demoralised by her male colleagues) brought her landmark case, we strongly suspect the number of cases brought to the tribunal each year, are just the tip of the iceberg." Today, sexual harassment cases are of a digital kind.

To help IT managers and supervisors wake up to the problem and define offensive behaviour in the office, the EOC has drawn up a checklist for them to refer to.

Detailed guidelines from the EOC for Managers can also be found here.