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Over 1 in 10 retail workers have experienced touching of a sexual nature in their current workplace

Written by Patrick Howarth on Tuesday, 27 August 2019. Posted in Diversity, People

A new survey from Foot Anstey has found that over 1 in 10 (11%) retail employees have experienced inappropriate touching of a sexual nature at their current employer.

Over 1 in 10 retail workers have experienced touching of a sexual nature in their current workplace

A new survey from Foot Anstey has found that over 1 in 10 (11%) retail employees have experienced inappropriate touching of a sexual nature at their current employer. What’s more, of those who have experienced inappropriate touching of a sexual nature, 36% blamed their employer for not doing enough to prevent it from happening. 

The total value for the UK retail sector last year was at £381 billion, and the sector saw a 4% growth in sales in 2018, therefore the demand for employees is high due to the profitable nature of the sector. Last year the retail sector was made up of 2.9 million employees which means that the 11% facing sexual harassment amounts to a total of 319,000 employees in the retail sector alone. 

Abuse in the retail sector

From those surveyed, 47% of employees in the retail sector said they have experienced verbally abusive language in the workplace. Verbal abuse constituted of hearing language of a sexual, racists, homophobic or otherwise very offensive nature whilst in the workplace. Retail employees claim 40% of verbal abuse in the workplace is from customers and 38% of verbal abuse was from colleagues. 

The gender split of verbal abuse was fairly even with 48% of those affected being female and 47% being male. The most affected age was 18-34 year olds and the most affected sector was supermarkets. 

Despite verbal abuse affecting almost half of the employees in the retail sector, it appears, from the survey results, that employers are not doing enough to prevent it from happening, with 49% of retail employees saying their employer could have done more to prevent verbal abuse in the workplace. 

Employees were not only affected by verbal abuse, but physical abuse as well with 1 in 4 retail employees admitting they have been a victim of physically aggressive or violent behaviour in the workplace.

Surprisingly, supermarkets were also the most affected retail sector for physical abuse. In the retail sector overall, men are more affected by physical abuse than women, with 31% of males surveyed admitting they had been a victim of physically aggressive or violent behaviour, compared to the 23% of women. 

Sexual harassment in the retail sector

The questions based around sexual harassment produced some of the most shocking results from the survey, as mentioned over 1 in 10 retail employees have experienced sexual harassment at their current employer. A further 26% of employees in the retail sector admitted to experiencing unwanted hugging or touching at their current place of employment, with department stores being the most affected sector of unwanted touching or hugging.

Retail employees aged between 18-34 are the most affected by sexual harassment and verbal abuse in the workplace. The gender split when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace was even with 11% of both men and women being affected. 

What is being done by employers?

Having a strong HR team is important at any company in order to protect employees and ensure they feel safe at work, however, 22% of retail employees said that confidential human resources services were not available at their current employer. 

Several respondents describe experiencing racist, sexual and abusive language from both their colleagues and customers. Many reported bullying - particularly by managerial or senior staff.

Anonymous survey respondents were given space to share what they had experienced. 

One said: “One colleague made me sit on his lap once. And he was really close behind me. I could feel his warmth.”

Another recalls: “I used to work in an establishment with two male colleagues who would be both verbally and physically sexually inappropriate. Unfortunately, due to their relationship with the senior staff, they both got away with it.”

Another respondent said: "One particular colleague insists on touching people inappropriately. She is older and so everyone dismisses it as funny."

Of those who do have a HR department at their current place of work, 24% of retail employees said that they did not think their current employer cared about protecting staff from inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. On top of that, almost half (41%) of retail employees who had raised a complaint about inappropriate behaviour said they were dissatisfied with the outcome.

Foot Anstey head of Retail and Consumer Patrick Howarth said: "Eye-catching as these figures are, I think I need to be honest and say they confirm the suspicions of anyone working in employment law.

"I hope they bring to life that quality training for managers in reputation-damaging issues is more important than ever. Business leaders want to see an end to the kind of behaviour this study reveals.

“Our survey shows the majority of sexual harassment comes from within the business. In Employment Tribunals the instigator is overwhelmingly more senior than the person making the complaint."

Howarth added: "Many managers are promoted on the basis of technical abilities and are not equipped with the leadership skills to deal with harassment – or even recognise it when they see it. That's no one's fault. The important thing is to change it."

About the Author

Patrick Howarth

Patrick Howarth

Patrick Howarth is the head of Retail and Consumer at Foot Anstey. Foot Anstey is a fast-growing UK Top 100 law firm. It was founded in 1908 and has in recent years developed into a network of eight offices across the South West, the South and London. The business employs around 600 people and is headquartered in Plymouth.

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