3 November 2017 by

Sexual Harassment: Keeping it out of the workplace – our top tips

Sexual harassment at work is serious. It can make employees and employers’ lives a misery and really affect how they do their job. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein and the increasing number of allegations made against personalities and politicians splashed across the news, we thought some clarity on the situation would be welcome.

In this article we provide top tips aimed at helping employers spot, prevent and tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.

Spot it

Firstly, you need to know what it looks like.

Any sexual action that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of an individual or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive work environment is considered sexual harassment. The victim of the harassment is not necessarily limited to the intended target, but could include anyone who is affected by the inappropriate behavior or made vulnerable where there could be an imbalance of power.

Examples of sexual harassment can include:

  • Unwanted sexual advances or touching
  • Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos with colleagues
  • Sending suggestive emails or text messages
  • Making sexual comments about appearance or clothing
  • Telling lewd or sexually inappropriate jokes
  • Asking sexualised questions about someone’s personal relationships, sexual history or sexual orientation

This list is not exhaustive and sexual harassment can include a number of different, perhaps smaller, instances that over time leave an individual feeling harassed at work. Where the unwanted conduct occurs repetitively and over many months or longer, a successful sexual harassment claim can result in uncapped damages in the Employment Tribunal.

Prevent it

Policy

This starts with the paperwork.

Ensure that you have a clear zero-tolerance written policy on sexual harassment and that in practice complaints or concerns are treated seriously. Each member of staff should have a copy of this and confirm that they have read and understood it.

Take a three-pronged approach and combine the harassment policy with a grievance and disciplinary policy. Appropriate mechanisms to report and deal with any incidents will ensure that the harassment policy has “teeth”.

Training

Policies need to be live, working documents. The reality is that they are not worth the paper they are written on if nobody knows how to use them.

Ensure that new staff are trained on the policy and arrange training for current staff. Line managers and HR should be given particular training since they will be implementing the policies and ensuring a culture of fairness in the organisation.

Tackle it

We all hope that instances of sexual harassment do not occur and employers have a duty to protect employees from this. However if they do, the first thing to consider is how serious is the incident?

There is a distinction between employment claims of sexual harassment and criminal offences of sexual assault. If an individual has alleged or reported to having been sexually assaulted by another member of staff then this should be reported through the appropriate criminal channels. Reasonable steps and care must be taken by employers to apply internal policies (i.e. grievance and disciplinary) in order to be fair to both employees and protect the health and safety of any vulnerable employees at work.

If you experience or receive a complaint of sexual harassment, ask yourself who is the appropriate person to deal with this? It is likely to be HR or Senior Management. Follow the appropriate company polices or, if these do not exist, refer to the ACAS Code of Practice.

Complaints should be investigated fully, fairly and without unnecessary delay.

Ultimately, sexual harassment is a complicated area of law and it is important to take advice early on. For more detailed advice on any of the above, including drafting policies or training, contact one of our Employment Solicitors here

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