Putting a stop to sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace has become a topic of discussion this month following a number of high profile names being subject to some intense media speculation.

So, what is harassment?

In brief, the Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as unwanted conduct which has the effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, or if a person engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or, due to the recipient’s reaction to such conduct, they are treated less favourably.

There is sometimes a fine line between ‘office banter’ and conversations that may result in a person feeling intimidated or humiliated. It is important to note that it is the recipient’s perception of the behaviour and whether their response is reasonable, which would determine whether harassment has taken place.

#Metoo

The popular hashtag which was started to provide people with a platform to voice their experiences of sexual harassment, demonstrates the wide range of behaviours which may be considered to be sexual harassment.

Examples include ‘constantly having conversations with my breasts’, ‘introducing my male colleague as 'the very talented' and me as 'the very beautiful’, and a male who was dating a female colleague being subjected to a torrent of questions regarding their sex life.

In the US we have seen intense speculation and allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein. In the UK the royal court have hosted a #greyareanomore #speakout event aimed at highlighting specific issues in the UK theatre world.

In a recent case, a judge ruled that the NHS pay a six-figure sum to an HR Director who was constructively dismissed and harassed after she rejected sexual advances from the NHS trust’s chairman.

We also saw Uber once again in the spotlight following an Uber engineer publishing a blog accusing the company of having a culture of sexism and sexual harassment, leading to staff leaving Uber following investigation, including some very senior members of staff.

Putting a stop to it

The Trade Union Congress suggests that over half of women in work in the UK have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their career. So, what can you, as an employer, do to protect your workers and your reputation?

Good role modelling - if your senior teams demonstrate appropriate behaviour, it will set the tone for the entire organisation. This is linked to corporate governance where we are seeing calls for increasing awareness of these issues. In some parts of the media we have seen commentators calling for any settlements agreed in these respects to be disclosed in annual reports as well as the sums involved.

Review your policies - do employees know how to 'call out' this type of behaviour if it happens and - equally as important - do they feel able to?

Provide refresher training to employees - ensuring that teams understand what are and what are not appropriate behaviours in the workplace.

Take action - ensure that appropriate and timely action is taken if a complaint is made and that your managers are trained in how to handle such complaints;

Seek feedback - introduce an anonymous employee satisfaction survey to include questions relating to harassment and take appropriate action based on findings.

Dealing with a complaint

If a complaint is raised, it should be dealt with promptly and objectively by a manager who has been trained in such situations. Remember that this is likely to be an uncomfortable position for the complainant to be in, so sensitivity and confidentiality is key.

A few tips:

  • take any complaints seriously and take prompt action;
  • consider whether an informal approach may be appropriate or if the complaint is of a nature which requires more formal, immediate action through the grievance procedure;
  • decide whether it is appropriate for the parties to continue working together whilst an investigation takes place – you may consider moving one to a different department, or suspension if the allegation appears to warrant it;
  • ensure that a thorough investigation takes place and that an objective view is formed based on the information available;
  • consider whether the complainant’s reaction to the behaviours leading to the complaint is reasonable;
  • based on the information gained during the investigation, decide whether counselling and/or mediation may be appropriate;
  • follow your disciplinary procedures as appropriate if the behaviour may warrant disciplinary action;
  • ensure accurate record keeping and maintain confidentiality at all stages; and
  • determine whether further training is required throughout the organisation to redefine boundaries and acceptable behaviours. 
For more information please contact Liz Perry, or your usual RSM contact.