Sexual harassment

Sometimes it can be difficult for employers to establish if a person’s behaviour constitutes harassment, as there is often considerable confusion as to what is acceptable behaviour, and it can be a very fine line to establish the accepted boundaries.

Accepted behaviour has changed significantly over the last 10 or 20 years. In a manufacturing environment, for example, it was “accepted” that if a female walked through a male dominated production environment it was highly likely that there would be wolf whistles, insulting or derogatory words shouted and even a slap on the backside!  These incidents would be brushed off because people would not challenge it for fear of either reprisal or being considered a prude!

Thankfully for employees, times have changed and no employee should have to tolerate sexually harassing behaviour.  Some examples of this would be all those fairly obvious examples above, but perhaps more subtle behaviour such as requesting kisses, lingering hugs, leg rubbing and shoulder massages, should all be widely recognised as a no-no today.

What is ‘inappropriate’ may be a difficult thing to establish precisely but what is paramount is recognition that what is “inappropriate” lies in the eye of the beholder. The same behaviour towards one employee may be acceptable whereas to another employee the exact same behaviour could be totally unacceptable.  Employers therefore have to approach this difficult area with an open mind; they should be sensitive towards each individual and also be alert to signals or comments made by their staff.

Employers need to be conscious of members of their staff who are very tactile and “touchy-feely” type people, and need to be aware as to how their personality and actions can be perceived.   Consideration needs to be given to the colleagues on the receiving end of an unwelcome embrace, in that it could make them feel very uncomfortable.  Combine this with the incident being between members of the opposite sex and it can very soon escalate into a sexual harassment allegation.

In all reality there should be few and far reasons why any co-worker would need to touch each other at all, and this should be the message that en employer puts across to their employees.  If an incident occurs and it is genuinely a mistake or done without malice or any intent then often this can be addressed swiftly with a quick and sincere apology and assurance that it will not happen again.  Often in the first instance of a “minor” incident taking place, the employee carrying out the behaviour needs to be told, if applicable, by the person who is offended that this is how they feel and ask them to stop or not repeat the behaviour.  However if this does then continue then the employer absolutely needs to take formal action.

What an employer can do to protect themselves and their employees is to ensure that clear policies are in place advising the employees what is not acceptable conduct, although it is very difficult to provide an exhaustive list there can be examples given.  Sexual innuendo’s are another minefield area and very difficult to say what is or is not acceptable. Induction is the best time to convey this policy for new starters and gets the message across immediately.

Training Managers in dealing with incidents is also a crucial element to managing harassment claims, the employer needs to show they took proactive steps to investigate claims and follow this up with appropriate action.  Managers should not substitute their own opinion of how they feel about the incident but need to remember that harassment is about how the individual feels.

Employers and managers need to always be alert to the very high importance on employees treating each other with respect and dignity and this alone should ensure that they can nip any potential claim in the bud!  It is worthy of note that claims for discrimination are have unlimited compensatory awards at an Employment Tribunal and often in these type of cases and additional aware for what is known as “injury to feelings” can be added to the claim and this alone can be up to £30,000!