Zero tolerance

Where we stand on sexual harassment

It’s been a year since the RCN launched its Respect Charter at Congress. A lot has happened in that time, not least the international focus on female empowerment and a greater awareness of sexual harassment.

The charter sets out how RCN staff and members should work together and treat each other with respect at all times.

The principles in our charter still stand but something has shifted within the public conversation about behaviour in the workplace.

What’s changed?

Since October last year, the debate on what is acceptable behaviour has taken centre-stage.

There has been unprecedented media coverage on cases of sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement has seen women, and some men, from across the world unite, using social media to speak up against sexual harassment and assault.

The RCN has always had a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment and has now strengthened that message with the following statement:

In view of recent press coverage of cases of sexual harassment and intimidation, in the workplace and elsewhere, the RCN re-affirms its policy of zero tolerance of this (and any other) form of abuse of power. 

We shall support those adversely affected. Inappropriate behaviour by staff or members will be investigated under the relevant RCN disciplinary procedures.

Chris Cox, Director of Membership Relations, elaborates: “Our Respect Charter focuses on building positive relationships. A huge part of that is being aware of how your behaviour, at any time, can affect and influence others.

“We want people to know that they can speak up when someone else’s behaviour is making them feel uncomfortable.

“We will challenge discrimination, harassment and bullying behaviours whenever possible and any inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated. Such behaviour will be addressed in line with our disciplinary policy.” 

Speaking up

If you’re experiencing sexual harassment at work, the advice is to tell someone. 

But RCN Regional Officer Daniel Heppell says that’s not always easy: “It’s a personal thing and sexual harassment can often feel much more private than bullying or other forms of harassment.

“People sometimes feel ashamed or they think it might affect their career if they tell someone. But that isn’t the case. 

“Every organisation will have a policy in place to deal with unwanted attention or harassment and there is support available.”

People sometimes feel ashamed or they think it might affect their career if they tell someone. But that isn’t the case

You can speak to your manager, your local RCN steward or call the RCN Direct advice line on 0345 772 6100. 

You might find it helpful to speak to a friend or family member first.

“The most important thing is to tell someone as soon as possible,” says Daniel, who has worked on over 30 cases involving sexual harassment in the last 10 years.

“Often, with cases of sexual harassment, we find that once one person speaks up, other people then come forward with similar stories. The perpetrator won’t stop unless they are held to account.”

So, has anything changed in light of movements like #Metoo?

Daniel, thinks it has: “People feel more empowered to speak out because they can see that things won’t be brushed under the carpet. In the past, they may have felt like it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

“For me, the most important thing is to establish trust with the person you’re supporting. 

“I always make sure the person is happy for me to be the one supporting them and that they feel comfortable. For example, is a woman happy with a man supporting them? We are very mindful of things like that.”

And of course, it’s not just women who are victims of sexual harassment.

“It can happen to anyone,” says Daniel. “Every case is different. Sometimes it’s an issue with the culture too – some things are seen as acceptable in one environment but not elsewhere, or by everyone, and that’s why it’s important for people to think about how their behaviour is received by others.”

You don’t have to label something to get support

Nicola Lee, RCN National Officer, is really clear that the RCN’s zero tolerance policy on harassment does not just apply to sexual harassment. 

“There is no ‘hierarchy of abuse’,” she says. “Any unwanted or unwarranted behaviour is unacceptable – as is any abuse of power in any form.”

“It is all important and although we want people to know how seriously we take sexual harassment, you don’t have to label something in order to do something about it.

“If something is impacting on dignity and respect then we will support you so this stops and doesn’t happen again.”

What to do if you’re experiencing bullying or harassment in the workplace

Talk to others and keep a diary

You could talk to friends, family, trusted colleagues or a workplace counsellor. Make sure you document everything that happens and make a note of the time and date.

Check your local policies

It’s always important to familiarise yourself with your employer’s policy on bullying and harassment. 

If you feel able to, you can confront the person

Tell the person how their behaviour is being received and ask them to stop. 

You can do this on your own or you can ask for help and support from a friend or your RCN representative.

Involve your employer

Following your employer’s policy, you can ask your line manager or another manager to talk to the person you are complaining about informally. 

If your manager is unsympathetic, keep a record of your meeting and call RCN Direct for further advice.

What if the bullying or harassment continues?

If the bullying or harassment continues, or if a serious incident occurs, you can consider making a formal written complaint. 

If you have been harassed you may also want to consider involving the police. Always follow your employer’s bullying and harassment policy.


  • Act promptly
    There are time limits to bring different types of legal claims.
  • Contact the RCN
    Consult your local RCN representative before registering your complaint or putting a formal grievance in writing.
  • We’re here to help
    Depending on the seriousness of the issue, you may wish to contact the police immediately. Whatever the situation, you can contact the RCN Direct advice line on 0345 772 6100 if you need support.

For more information, read the RCN’s bullying and harassment advice guide.

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