Stranger Harassment remains a common occurrence for women all around the world. Unlike other forms of harassment where the perpetrator is known to the victim, for example, a colleague or friend, stranger harassment is perpetrated by people unknown to the victim in the public domain such as on the street, in stores, at bars, or on public transport. Whilst not all forms of stranger harassment are sexual in character, there is frequent overlap with sexual harassment. In the UK, over 80% of women aged 18-34 have experienced sexual harassment in a public space and two-thirds of those who have experienced stranger harassment at work experienced it in the last 12 months . The culture surrounding stranger harassment is detrimental to women’s well-being and restricts their freedom of movement and their right to safety in public spaces .
There are many instances in the working day when employees may be vulnerable to stranger harassment, for example when they enter public spaces or for those assuming public-facing roles such as working in retail, public service, events, and hospitality. Research conducted by TUC revealed that over 1 in 2 women and around 7 out of 10 LGBTQ+ workers in the UK have been sexually harassed in the workplace [3, 4]. The incidents of stranger harassment in the workplace such as catcalling, whistling, staring, and unwelcome touching have a long-lasting impact on an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being. This includes depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and feelings of anger, shame, and isolation . Furthermore, this also impacts the workplace which contributes to persistent gender pay gaps and labour market inequalities as poor mental well-being creates significant barriers for victims to progress in their roles or position.
“An elderly male photographed me as I was working, which involves me bending over at times...”
“...A man wolf-whistled at me and told me he loved to see a woman on her knees as I was stocking a bottom shelf...”
“...An elderly man kept complimenting my body, such as telling me to look into his eyes [so he could] admire my eye colour.”
In the UK, there have been several promising legal reforms designed to tackle harassment in and out of the workplace. With the Equality Act, of 2010 employees are guaranteed protection against sexual harassment at work. Moreover, in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and heightened focus on instances of sexual harassment in the workplace, in 2021 the UK government proposed further legislation to strengthen legal protection in the workplace. However, legal action alone cannot solve cultural norms and inequalities that are deeply normalised and internalised. This International Women's Day, we want to encourage businesses to be key actors in bringing about social change by equipping them with the tools to understand and shift the culture surrounding stranger harassment and gender inequality.
Understanding the roots of stranger harassment
Stranger Harassment is a persistent type of gender-based violence that affects each person’s ability to feel safe in their everyday lives. Although this behaviour is often rooted in patriarchal norms, it is crucial to remember that harassment does not only affect women. By applying an intersectional lens, it is evident that women with disabilities, those from BME backgrounds or the LGBTQ+ community, migrant workers, and those in insecure jobs such as zero-hours contracts and agency work due to labour market disparities commonly encounter sexual harassment .
A major barrier to tackling stranger harassment is its internalisation in society. It is a form of harassment that is so frequently normalised and embedded in public life that it is rarely acknowledged as harassment. The acceptance of such harassment, or the framing of it as praise or humour, establishes a culture whereby it is permissible to treat someone unjustly or to make unwanted comments about them. Furthermore, community attitudes toward sexual and gender-based violence are crucial in normalising, justifying, and downplaying the behaviour of offenders as well as building a culture that supports violence . Street harassment, a type of stranger harassment, therefore, reflects the broader cultural environment and can escalate into more severe kinds of violence.
Another factor contributing to stranger harassment is the gendered and racialised nature of public spaces, where structural power relations exist, are maintained, and reproduced, and work to limit participation in public spheres . The contest for space leads to gender segregation and restricts women's access to public spaces where research has constantly explored public places reinstating itself to be "conducive contexts" for violence against women and girls [9, 10]. Stranger harassment is an act of establishing control over victims, treating them disrespectfully, and may involve sexually objectifying them without their consent. Street harassment patterns are also related to spatial factors which are based on a power dynamic that serves as a reminder to historically oppressed groups (such as women and LGBTQ+ people) of their vulnerability in these settings. Street harassment has often proved to be sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, sizeist, and/or classist .
The impact on the workplace...
Stranger harassment at work is considered to be third-party harassment. Third parties are people whom a worker interacts with while performing their job but who are not employed by the same employer as them. Some examples could be a customer at a shop, a client in a meeting, a patient in a hospital, a business contact in a conference, or any non-directly employed worker. Such harassment can take the form of bullying, stalking, or verbal abuse that violates another person's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, demeaning, humiliating, or offensive environment and anyone can become the victim of such abuse, regardless of gender, age, or sexual orientation.
Research conducted by TUC has demonstrated a connection between specific public-facing industries and third-party harassment. For instance, whereas only 7% of women have reported experiencing sexual harassment at work from a third party, this number rises to 11% for those who work in the retail industry and 9% of those who work in the health services industry stated that the offender was a patient or customer. Furthermore, young individuals may be more susceptible than older workers to encounter third-party abuse and harassment where 13% of young women (aged 18 to 24) reported being harassed by a stranger . Such harassment could occur due to the industries they work in, the roles they play, and their relative weakness in the labour market such as being overrepresented in insecure jobs .
According to data from the Labour Force Survey, more than one-third of workers between the ages of 21 and 30 work in caring, sales, and elementary occupations, compared to one-quarter of those over the age of 31 . These jobs frequently entail interacting with patients, clients, consumers, and other third parties, and are typically more impacted by poor pay, unstable employment, and restrictive employer policies. Therefore, they remain more prone to experience harassment, abuse, or violence at the hands of a client, patient, public figure, or a business associate (a third party). According to TUC research, 70% of young workers had experienced third-party harassment on at least three separate occasions .
...on the individual
Third-party harassment at work affects a person’s psychological, physical, and sexual health, dignity, and family and social life and can result in emotional distress such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeplessness, anxiety, and physical harm . Any type of harassment, abuse, or bullying at work may have a negative economic effect on the workplace as well. Work-related stress, anxiety, and depression become the leading cause of workplace sickness that resulted in 17 million working days lost in 2021-22 . According to a recent TUC survey, 38% of employees who had experienced harassment and abuse from third parties said it made them feel less confident at work. Nearly one-third (31%) reported feeling ashamed, and 23% claimed it hurt their productivity at work. About one in five (22%) stated they wanted to quit their work but couldn’t due to financial or other constraints. 37% claimed that the harassment and abuse had a detrimental effect on their mental health, causing them to feel more frustrated, anxious, or depressed .
Around 45% of young women claimed experiences of harassment at work had a detrimental effect on their mental health. Since sexual harassment disproportionately affects women, it may aggravate existing workplace gender disparities that prevent women from advancing or cause them to quit the workforce altogether . Such effects may lead to decreased productivity, attendance, and job satisfaction for women employees. One of the biggest obstacles to career success is the fact that women who deny sexual engagement frequently discover that their chances for professional advancement, mentorship, and on-the-job training are curtailed . According to research, 80% of women who experienced sexual harassment began new employment within two years of the harassment, compared to just over 50% of other working women. The study also discovered that job changes can cause significant financial stress, often leaving people without another job to turn to, and that sexual harassment can have long-term effects on earnings and career advancement. The impacts of such harassment on young employees have tremendous adverse effects which include concerns about their safety and dignity, fear, frustration, and stress, which hurt their mental health and alter their outlook on work . Sexual harassment affects coworkers as well, fostering an environment of fear and intimidation that lowers productivity and increases absenteeism. In contrast, evidence demonstrates that bystanders, perpetrators, and victims' productivity all increase when workplace violence and harassment are absent .
...on the business
Workplace stranger and sexual harassment have a substantial cost for companies in terms of decreased profitability, negative effects on workplace relationships and employee engagement, and reputational damage . Such harassment has proved to impact both the performance and production of the company adversely. Whereas higher absences, decreased motivation and commitment, and team disturbance all contribute to lost productivity; the impact of exposure to workplace sexual harassment can result in "bystander stress" and team conflict, which negatively impacts team performance. In addition to this, workplace anxiety among team members who witness harassment results in lower financial performance as well .
In terms of financial costs for businesses, formal allegations of harassment that result in litigation are expensive in terms of legal fees and the reputation of the company . Such incidents draw damaging negative attention, which has been proven to harm reputations and dissuade clients, investors, and future employees . Cases of sexual harassment also indicate higher employee turnover, which is expensive and disruptive to firms. Furthermore, workers who suffer harassment that is sexual in nature are more likely to shift occupations; a study in the US found that up to one-third of women who experience sexual harassment aim to leave their positions, depending on their industry, position, and security without a job . In such cases of sexual harassment, the cost of hiring a replacement employee is much more than the expense of a lawsuit . According to estimates, employee turnover costs 16 to 20% of an employee's annual compensation, and for experienced managerial and professional employees, this cost might reach 213% .
Harassment is, therefore, detrimental to a company's value and may induce a significant economic cost. All executives, especially the CEO, must make sure that measures to address it, including fines for offenders, are applied consistently. They must also build a company-wide approach to prevent harassment and respond if it does occur. Businesses that invest in creating an inclusive culture based on safety, respect, and dignity are better positioned to recruit and retain talent, with customers and employees increasingly choosing companies they believe "do the right thing."
What actions can businesses undertake to tackle stranger harassment at work?
Workplace abuse, harassment, and bullying are costly to businesses and employees alike. In addition to a moral case, employers have a clear business case to stop workplace harassment and abuse. Employers who avoid handling abuse and harassment lose productivity due to sick days, morale issues, and decreased service quality. A business case for tackling stranger harassment cases is presented in the following ways:
1) Reclaim public spaces
Public spaces are often sites of struggle and contestation. Therefore, reclaiming public spaces by businesses will be effective in claiming the rights of every gender to work safely in public spaces without abuse and harassment. This can be achieved by introducing workplace interventions and encouraging active bystanders and creating safe public spaces.
Workplace interventions are increasingly being tested to combat stranger harassment by customers or employees in public places, especially in the transportation and hospitality industries. Establishing written standards of conduct and creating a physical design upholding protection against stranger harassment in public working spaces for employees as well as customers by businesses might enable third parties in creating safe spaces for employees working in public spaces. Additionally, other mechanisms or arrangements can be put in public spaces that actively encourage employees to report any kind of abuse. For instance, hotels in the US are equipping staff who provide in-room services with emergency panic buttons to report sexual harassment or assault . Moreover, restaurants are using colour-coded systems to detect customers who harass workers sexually where each colour sets off a pre-determined response, ranging from the manager taking over table service or ordering the customer(s) to leave .
One example of an effective workplace intervention to reduce sexual harassment in privately held public venues is the UK's Good Night Out initiative . This initiative undertakes specialised training and policy assistance that helps nightlife venues and organisations better recognise, address, and prevent sexual harassment. It offers a one-year accreditation programme to student unions, event planners, festivals, and licensed establishments (nightclubs, bars, and pubs) throughout the UK and Ireland. To date, it has collaborated with 185 nightlife venues and trained 2,641 personnel. Additionally, Thrive is dedicated to providing safe space training to assist businesses in tackling stranger harassment which is practical, expert-led, and interactive training in partnership with UN Women UK.
Additionally, bystander approaches could be effective in reclaiming public space to tackle harassment. These approaches acknowledge other employees to be allies and encourage them to step in when they witness an act of stranger harassment. Bystander training can equip employees to step in and stop harassment and violence . As well as fostering a climate of safety, respect, and equality, it equips workers with the knowledge necessary to be "active" bystanders. It is also well established that intervention training that educates staff members on how to intervene to defend or remove a victim of sexual harassment from a situation, speak with the harasser, or assist in defusing a situation proves to be effective. Nonetheless, a bystander may need to consider the hazards involved, particularly in situations where the perpetrator is in a position of authority. Hence, it's critical to set up third-party complaint processes for people who might not have been directly affected by sexual harassment but believe that the behaviour has led to an intimidating or offensive workplace, as well as a remedy if a worker feels they are the target of retaliation.
In terms of creating a safe space, businesses can collaborate with organisations as well as the government to tackle stranger harassment. One example indicated here is with the help of the Northbank Business Improvement District, UN Women UK, and Safe & the City have teamed together to conduct a pilot analysis of real-time reports of sexual assault and harassment to quantify the scope of the issue. Safe & the City is a street-smart app that enables individuals to reach their destination not only quickly but also safely. The app integrates official police and crowdsourced incidences to educate the public and develop the intelligence required to create places that are safer and more welcoming for people to stroll, study, shop, work, and live. Additionally, businesses can also apply to become a positively marked "Safe & the City Safe Site" which will allow them to collaborate with the organisation to identify issues and track advancements using their platform .
Public spaces have been the context of the struggle to achieve equality in public life and therefore it is essential that businesses create safe spaces, provide workplace intervention and encourage bystanders’ approach for genders to excel at their work without fear of intimidation, bullying, or stranger harassment.
2) Create a safe workplace
Businesses can build a safe workplace by encouraging reporting and seeking accountability for the action of the perpetrator. Stranger harassment is a significantly underreported problem. According to the study, in the UK, more than 95% of all women did not report incidents of sexual harassment in public places . Furthermore, 55% did not think the incident was serious enough to report and 44% did not think reporting would help . Additionally, underreporting is a major barrier to change - in and out of the workplace. Of those who experience stranger harassment at their place of work, less than half reported the incident to their employer. Evidence suggests that respondents who mentioned the harassment to the managers and supervisors completely dismissed them and despite several offences, no action was taken against the perpetrators. As a result, workers, unfortunately, stopped reporting incidents altogether and, worryingly, said that they had come to tolerate harassment as "part of the job" . Furthermore, for victims from the LGBT community as well as black and minority ethnic, reports highlight higher levels of discrimination especially when their perpetrator is not an employee. Such victims may be less hesitant to report the incident because they believe it won't be handled in the same way as if the perpetrator were another employee.
Therefore, it is necessary for businesses to integrate reporting procedures for cases of stranger harassment, particularly those sexual in nature, with international labour standards that either comply with or go beyond national employment laws and policies. These must be gender-responsive, safe, and simple for victims and bystanders to report sexual harassment without fear of repercussions. Additionally, they ought to provide means for anonymous and private reporting which include witnesses for instance using online mechanisms . Clear, understandable, and accessible reporting procedures should be in place, particularly for employees with disabilities. There shouldn't be any intimidating or difficult procedures. Additionally, there should be a variety of reporting options available through clearly defined official and informal processes since victims are more likely to find someone they feel comfortable speaking to if they have a choice.
3) Adopt a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of harassment, abuse and bullying from a third party
Businesses must strictly comply with policies that reduce the occurrence of stranger harassment in the workplace. Such policies must put in place preventive mechanisms such as banning abusive third parties from using company services along with addressing the aftermath of the incidents where companies can offer support to staff with reporting abuse and harassment to the police. In addition, employers can also offer counselling and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to help employees who have been victims of harassment.
Furthermore, it will be favourable for businesses to establish an ombudsperson system. This system should be casual, impartial, and private, with the ombudsman being the only party informed of the problem. As a result, victims may feel more empowered, with the knowledge and room they need to consider their alternatives, take appropriate action, and decide whether to make their complaints aware to the offender. The offices of the ombud must be clearly defined where they do not conduct formal hearings and are not bound by the rules of evidence, but they might also not exclude later taking more formal action.
Additionally, the processes for investigation and reparation should be victim-focused, gender-responsive, independent of institutions of power, and distinct from the line of command to promote the welfare of victims and witnesses. Victims should get continuous assistance and pertinent information, such as referrals to suitable services and peer support groups, throughout the process. Before taking any formal action, an inquiry process that prioritises the victim should work to obtain the victim's informed consent .
With this mechanism, it is important to maintain confidentiality to "protect against victimisation of or retaliation against complainants, victims, witnesses, and whistle-blowers," as well as to "protect the privacy of those individuals involved and confidentiality, to the extent possible and as appropriate, and ensure that requirements for privacy and confidentiality are not misused” . Victims should be given the utmost respect and reassurance that it is not their responsibility to confront such harassment. Businesses should also make sure that if victims come out, there will be no reprisals or reactions and that survivors' employment, reputations, and possibilities for promotion won't be badly impacted . The procedure should be swift and thorough with explicitly stated and strictly adhered to time restrictions. Processes should be fair; for instance, if offenders are permitted to have a lawyer, union representative, or advocate, witnesses and survivors should have the same rights. It's crucial to specify any temporary actions that may be implemented throughout the course of the proceedings, such as shifting the alleged offender's place of employment or placing them on administrative leave. The victim must also have access to protection, assistance, and corrective actions, including counselling and line-manager support, as well as adequate remedies and compensation for material and non-material damages .
4) Carry out risk assessments and strengthen harassment prevention policies
It is crucial to strengthen the existing and future harassment prevention policies by carrying out risk assessment procedures that could prove beneficial for businesses. Risk assessments are especially crucial for workers in public-facing positions, for lone and nighttime labour, for those who might be closing facilities, and for those who must commute to and from work. For an effective risk assessment process, stranger harassment policies should be reviewed annually. As part of the review, any themes that emerge from evaluation and monitoring as well as the input obtained through tools like staff surveys and lessons-learned sessions should be taken into consideration. This should involve assessing whether the policy is producing consistent and suitable results in response to complaints or whether additional actions are necessary to improve should be part of this. Furthermore, employers need to evaluate the risks of victimisation and harassment. For this approach, pre-existing risk management frameworks that have historically been employed in the area of occupational health and safety could be utilised. Along with this, assessments should identify the risks and the preventive steps to reduce those risks.
5) Provide comprehensive training for staff at all levels to ensure proper support for employees
Businesses can provide comprehensive training to their top management that includes managers and supervisors ensuring that policies are communicated to staff and that senior team members are equipped with the tools to deal with incidents of stranger harassment. Training and information provided by employers, such as preventative and protective measures, should be made available in accessible forms as necessary . Businesses should strive to end stranger harassment by making it everyone's responsibility where every employee should be able to contribute to creating good, courteous, and gender-responsive workplaces that are based on a culture of trust and confidentiality. To ensure that everyone is aware of the dangers of violence and harassment and how to deal with them; managers, supervisors, workers, and their representatives must receive training, direction, and awareness-raising. Furthermore, it is crucial that, instead of depending solely on victims to come forward, everyone is given a role in reporting sexual harassment . Recent research indicates that bystander intervention programmes, which train bystanders to intervene when they see someone acting improperly, and training for managers on spotting early indicators of harassment and taking prompt action are the most successful initiatives .
6) Conduct company research with employees to assess the scale of the problem
Businesses can tackle stranger harassment at work by conducting internal company research with employees to understand the scale of the program. Recognising the seriousness of the issue is just as important as finding its solution. When the issue is only partially understood or barely scratches the surface, the effects of risk assessment, training, and putting another preventive mechanism in place prove to be ineffective. As a result, companies must conduct their study and analysis to determine where they stand with the issue. After gathering real-life data from the victims who experience stranger harassment at their workplace and understanding what the culture of stranger harassment at a company is, a thorough action plan and training session could be carried out to address the issue more effectively.
It is crucial to compile information on all claims of sexual harassment. This needs to be broken down for both victims and offenders based on sex, age, disability, and other pertinent factors. Data collection must be integrated into how businesses run daily and must be openly made available to management without revealing any personal information. It is also crucial to evaluate important elements that may increase the likelihood of harassment, such as decentralised and isolated workspaces, male-dominated power dynamics, and inadequate dispute resolution procedures.
As a moral obligation for the businesses as well, it would be beneficial to publish the data collection findings along with an assessment of the problem-solving steps done against earlier reports. Furthermore, with each report, the businesses could release an action plan outlining how it will address persistent prejudice and disadvantage. It would be also helpful if businesses could track the progress in areas such as the number of incidents that took place in their company which are reported to employers and that are presented to the court. Therefore, with the assistance of such data, it will be easier for businesses to assess the success of measures taken and make improvements to policy and practice where necessary. Here, Thrive can assist businesses in carrying out internal research, conduct internal research on their behalf or encourage businesses to carry out their internal research.
Establishing the right culture must start and involve the highest level of management, including the board of directors. Senior coworkers should take the lead in combating violence and sexual harassment, empowering employees to voice concerns, and treating everyone equally. They should also set a positive example for the rest of the organisation . While senior leadership support is crucial, all employees must actively participate in eradicating stranger harassment with established lines of responsibility and transparency. The emphasis should be on avoiding stranger harassment instead of just responding to it when it occurs. This entails developing collaboration, teamwork, and respect while advancing gender equality and diversity to cultivate a safe, courteous, and equitable workplace culture .
Some businesses have been successful in building solidarity to fight against street harassment by collaborating with other organisations. One such example is L’Oréal Paris partnering with Hollaback to encourage women and men to intervene safely when they witness street harassment. The successful ad campaign invited a call to action in the events of such harassment and encouraged the creation of active bystanders by intervening in the matter and promoting 5D’s method initiated by Hollaback .
Another successful campaign is run by TFL on the London tube that vocalised street harassment and built active participation in tackling the issue. The campaign attempts to combat the normalisation and dismissal of this behaviour as "something that happens" to women and girls on public transportation and in other public places to make it apparent that such behaviour is never acceptable and that the strongest measures are always taken .
Stranger harassment is a pervasive form of gender violence that impacts individuals as well as businesses. The culture of stranger harassment is deeply embedded in the social fabric of public life and invades public spaces by asserting power dynamics that span gender, age, disability, and race. Third-party harassment in the form of bullying, verbal abuse, and sexual advances at work has proved to impact an employee’s physical, emotional, sexual, and financial health.
On International Women’s Day, Thrive presents our business case to tackle stranger and sexual harassment at work. These actions help businesses shift the culture around stranger harassment. Firstly, by reclaiming public spaces that are contested sites of power and inequality, businesses can introduce workplace interventions and encourage an active bystander approach to create safe public spaces. Secondly, while underreporting has proved to be a major barrier to tackling stranger harassment, businesses can actively promote and encourage reporting and ensure a mechanism that stringently takes action against the perpetrators to create a safe workplace environment for workers. Thirdly, adopting a zero-tolerance approach that further places an ombudsman mechanism to deal with complaints of stranger harassment could prove to be beneficial for businesses. Fourthly, a comprehensive training programme for all staff members could encourage businesses to create a culture of a harassment-free working environment. Furthermore, businesses are urged to carry out a risk assessment process that can help them assess the potential risk due to stranger harassment and take appropriate and necessary steps to reduce those risks. Finally, conducting internal research with employees and presenting data and progress made in their organisation can effectively help businesses not only understand but also precisely detect the culture of harassment at their workplace and take measures to reduce the issue of stranger harassment.
Thrive upholds the protection of employees and workers against stranger and sexual harassment and actively seeks to assist businesses in pursuing this goal through our Safe Spaces Training programme. Additionally, we believe in advocating and sharing the progress a business has made about tackling stranger harassment at the workplace and encourage other businesses to take inspiration.
Nonetheless, stranger harassment is a recurring issue that is internalised in culture. However, businesses can play a key role in shifting the culture around stranger harassment and make it a win-win situation for employees and businesses by identifying the gravity of the issue of stranger harassment and tackling the issue effectively.
Written by Priya Bhikhu Bhimra, Thrive Research Hub Member
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