This is, of course, a topic which you can’t fail to have heard about over the last few months. The subject has worldwide media focus now and those individuals with power and influence in our society who have, at any stage of their career, used this to intimidate, threaten and harass anyone (but mostly women) to their advantage, are now being targeted.
The exposure of such practice is proving to have a “Ripple effect” with allegations being highlighted in business, public, charitable and other sectors throughout the world. As a business owner, never has there been a better time to review your own policies in relation to how you would deal with a claim of sexual harassment.
Of course, sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon and it is estimated that 50% of women in employment are, or have been, subject to sexual harassment of some form or other. The TUC report “Still just a bit of banter? Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in 2016” revealed sexual harassment is both endemic and largely unreported.
What is disappointing is that this type of behaviour persists even though protection for employees has existed for over 40 years, since the introduction in 1975 of the Sex Discrimination Act (later incorporated within the Equality Act 2010).
The Equality Act defines sexual harassment as when someone engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of either violating someone else’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.
It can involve employees, managers, contractors, agents, clients, customers and others connected with or attending a workplace. It can happen at work, at work-related events or between colleagues outside the work environment.
There is no clear definition of what Sexual Harassment is as people respond to situations in different ways and what might seem like an innocent action or remark to one person may be deemed to be offensive by another. The test is how the recipient feels about the behaviour. Employment tribunals will endeavour to take a balanced view and look at the recipient’s perception, the circumstances involved and whether it was reasonable for the conduct to have had the effect the employee claimed.
As an employer, you have a responsibility to ensure that all incidents of sexual harassment – no matter how large or small or who is involved - should be responded to quickly and appropriately. Even if someone doesn’t object to inappropriate behaviour in the workplace at the time, it does not mean that they are consenting to it. For offending employees, appropriate action could mean dismissal but if an employer fails to deal with sexual harassment adequately, they could be looking at unlimited compensation awards and significant damage to their reputation.
We certainly appear to be moving towards a new era. One in which sexual harassment is no longer tolerated in the workplace. It is therefore important to have the policies and procedures in place to be able to deal with it. As a starting point, you need to ensure that you have suitable policies in place and make sure everyone in your business is aware of them. Are these policies included in your employee handbook or on the company intranet? You will have to review and communicate the policies regularly and explain exactly what behaviour is not acceptable in the business. The regular training of line managers and team leaders/supervisors is key to this, and they are then well placed to monitor how employees interact with each other. The policies need to explain how to raise a concern and how the organisation will address it and timelines.
As an SME we appreciate that you may not have the resources to be able to deal with all of this but if you do have concerns about behaviour in your workplace or want to ensure that you have robust policies in place, our HR Consultants can work with you to ensure that you are able to deal confidently with sexual harassment complaints and resolve challenging employee relations issues.