Robust policies, clear communication and a zero-tolerance approach are key to managing sexual harassment in the workplace, and ensuring you protect yourself, as an employer, from tribunal claims.
Sexual harassment in the workplace has gathered a lot of media attention in the last few years, largely following the myriad of sexual assault claims against Harvey Weinstein in 2017 and the Oxfam scandal in February 2018.
This has served as a welcome force for debate and a re-appraisal of what is appropriate in the workplace. At the end of July 2018 the Parliamentary Committee published a report on sexual harassment that called for action by the government, regulators and employers to put the issue of sexual harassment at the top of their agenda.
Defining sexual harassment in the workplace
Acas defines sexual harassment as:
Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. It has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.
In practice, examples can include use of sexual language and innuendo, display or sharing of pornographic images, unwanted touching or even sexual assault.
The most common cases we see in HR are where a working environment and culture is so relaxed that people openly use innuendo and crude jokes that is perceived by most as ‘banter’.
However, allowing this culture to take root places the business and its employees at risk, because you never know when you will hire someone who will take offence more easily than others, or find that someone who has seemingly accepted the behaviour for a period of time, then uses that ‘banter’ as an example of sexual harassment.
Other common examples centre around unwanted advances from one member of staff to another, often taking place at work parties or resulting from affairs that turn sour.
A BBC survey conducted in 2017 reported that 40% of women and 18% of men had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work.
Preventing sexual harassment in your business
Set expectations and demonstrate a zero tolerance approach – As a manager or business owner it’s your job to demonstrate the right behaviours, and if your team members aren’t behaving appropriately, you need to tell them. That way, you will be actively showing your team what kind of workplace you expect.
Provide clear information – Ensure you have a harassment and bullying policy, that your team is aware of it and that people know how to report unacceptable behaviour.
Remember that work parties and social events are an extension of the workplace – During these events be mindful of your team’s behaviour, consider limiting the amount of alcohol provided by the company and don’t be afraid to send people home if they are getting a bit carried away!
Run training sessions – If you think you might have a problem, consider running some short training sessions around Dignity and Respect at work.
How to manage a claim of sexual harassment
Allow staff to have access to the senior team – Ensure they know you are approachable and will deal with issue. You need to foster an environment where it is okay to challenge and say no if someone is acting inappropriately.
Conduct an immediate and impartial investigation into the claim
Deal with any claims of sexual harassment sensitively and diligently – Remember that it can be really difficult for individuals to raise this kind of complaint, so think about the consequences on all sides and ensure you don’t jump to conclusions before undertaking your investigations. It is important to listen to noise and grumbles, ensuring you don’t ignore warning signs or brush things under the carpet.
Take judicious action in line with grievance and disciplinary procedures – Once you have the facts following robust investigations, be sure to take appropriate action in line with your policies to ensure the behaviour is prevented from continuing and to demonstrate your zero-tolerance approach. If you uncover anything serious, for example someone taking advantage of vulnerable people, you should report this to the police.
Offer additional support – Make sure anyone who reports that they have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace receives adequate support.
How sexual harassment poses a risk to employers
It’s important to remember that anything that happens during the course of employment is also treated in employment law as having been done by the employer. This means that as an employer, you could find yourself facing a tribunal claim for sexual harassment, even when it was your employee who committed the harassment.
What employers can do to protect themselves
To protect yourself from a tribunal claim, you need to be able to show that you 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 clear employment policies as part of your staff handbook setting out what is expected from staff and what they must not do. The policies should explain that staff will be disciplined if they do not follow them and may also be dismissed. The policies where employee conduct should be addressed are typically the:
– Anti-bullying and Harassment Policy
– Equal Opportunities Policy
– IT and Communications Policy
– Social Media Policy
– 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.
- Ensure 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.
If you’re unsure how to manage an issue of alleged sexual harassment, or would like help writing your employment policies, our consultants can help.