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How to handle sexual harassment claims
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Sexual harassment in the workplace has gathered a lot of media attention in the past few weeks largely due to the myriad of sexual assault claims against Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent spike in other employees now coming forward – most notably those to the BBC.

In a large organisation, anyone who experiences harassment of any kind at work, sexual or not, would be encouraged to report it directly to their human resources department. But what should happen in a small business?

Well, the process followed should largely be the same, but the report would likely to be made to the founder of the business, or a manager. Someone who is not necessarily prepared to deal with the situation presented to them.

The answer in both cases is that a well-trained, HR professional should conduct an immediate and impartial investigation into the claim followed by action to ensure the behaviour is prevented from continuing.

Is it just women making the reports?

Apparently not. A recent BBC article quoted a ComRes poll for BBC 5 Live that found half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work. Of those 63% of women said they didn’t report it to anyone, and 79% of the male victims kept it to themselves.

The key thing here though, is the fact that people are not reporting it.   The danger of this is that if people don’t report it straightaway because they don’t feel comfortable doing so, you could find yourself having to deal with things when they have got out of hand or even when a claim comes in.  In addition, someone who is the victim of sexual harassment may suffer stress related symptoms or time off work, affecting productivity.  As the founder of a business you have a responsibility to let your staff know what they should do in such a situation.  Start by creating an environment that’s open and have an employment handbook that your staff can access should they ever need guidance on any workplace issue.

So what actually constitutes sexual harassment at work?

When someone says sexual harassment you probably immediately think of a pinch on the bottom, or a hand somewhere it shouldn’t be, or worse. But, it’s well worth remembering that sexual harassment is not just physical it can be verbal or even written. For example, it could be an unwanted email or social media post.

Other things that won’t wash are to say ‘it was just a joke’ or ‘a harmless bit of fun’, and even if someone has put up with these type of jokes or remarks for a long time, that doesn’t mean it’s ok. In fact, in any of these scenarios if it is unwanted behaviour it will be classed as sexual harassment.

It may not need to be said, but for thoroughness sake, it’s also not ok to have naked pictures of men or women on the walls in the workplace or to watch pornography from a computer in the office. For a sexual harassment claim to stick it doesn’t always have to be directed at one person only.

What are the real risks to an employer today?

It has been said that the high-profile nature of the recent cases could open the floodgates for women to raise their own issues after gaining confidence from hearing of others experiencing similar problems. We’ve already seen many people at the BBC coming forward. So this is a real risk.

And worse than that, YOU could find yourself in a Tribunal facing a claim for sexual harassment from a member of staff because anything done in the course of employment is also treated in employment law as having been done by the employer. So this is not one to ignore or take lightly.

What can an employer do to protect themselves?

All that said, there is a defence available to an employer if they can show that they took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the employee from being sexually harassed.  Examples of such reasonable steps, and ones we’d recommend you follow include:

Having a clear employment policy as part of your staff handbook setting out what is expected from staff and what they must not do. It should explain that staff will be disciplined if they do not follow the policies and may also be dismissed.  These are usually the Anti-bullying and Harassment Policy and Equal Opportunities Policy, IT and Communications Policy, Social Media Policy and Disciplinary Policy.
Make sure all staff know and understand what the policies say and make sure those in management positions and authority lead by example.  Provide training to all staff and managers, especially if a change in culture is required.
Make sure that there is genuinely a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment of any type in your workplace; you should be able to show a tribunal evidence of this.

When cases like this hit the media, it can seem quite scary, and even more so for small employers who through no fault of their own, could find themselves at risk of an employment tribunal claim. Our advice is to always have access to qualified HR professionals who can help you when it’s needed most.

You can get in contact with our friendly and fully qualified HR consultants on 0333 444 0165 or by emailing help@citrusHR.com

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