Recent scandals to hit Hollywood and Westminster and research that 1 in 5 women have been the victims of sexual harassment at work has led to questions over whether organisations are doing enough to raise awareness and tackle such issues.
Whilst having clear and visible policies on bullying and harassment is a good starting point, many companies have looked at implementing ‘speak-up’ systems to encourage employees to raise concerns. Systems of this type can be useful in raising awareness of unethical conduct at work and it can allow the company to address them prior to the issue escalating or before an employee raises a tribunal claim because they feel that they have nowhere else to turn. A further benefit of systems such as this is that they can improve staff morale and staff turnover.
It has been found that many employees don’t speak up initially because they fear they will not be taken seriously or no action will be taken as a result of them raising the allegations. The key issue here is trust between the employer and employee which can stem from the overall culture of the organisation and is integral to the psychological contract. People feel empowered to raise concerns if they can trust management within the organisation to handle the situation in a fair and consistent way.
Another issue which can prevent individuals from raising concerns is that they don’t know how to because the procedure for raising complaints is not clear or accessible. It is therefore essential that employers make grievance and whistle-blowing procedures clear and visible and managers and HR are trained in how to handle them effectively.
Many employers and employees might not be clear on what exactly constitutes sexual harassment. The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as:
“unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”
This encompasses suggestive comments, unwanted touching and demands of a sexual nature. Many people often feel that this is ‘banter’ or a bit of a joke but in reality, this could lead to a claim of sexual harassment as it is not a defence for the perpetrator to claim that the unwanted conduct was meant as a joke or that they considered it acceptable.
When it comes to bringing a claim (with the exception of sexual assault which would be dealt with in a criminal court) harassment cases are brought under the Equality Act. Often in these cases you have one word against another because there are often no witnesses. Sometimes there might be supporting evidence from emails or messaging apps which can help to substantiate claims. Employers are responsible for creating a safe work environment for staff and they do not need to be aware of inappropriate conduct in order to be vicariously liable. Organisations do have a defence against such claims if they can show that reasonable steps have been taken to prevent harassment from occurring, financial awards for harassment are uncapped and so the impact can be significant.
What steps can be taken to prevent workplace harassment?
Clear and visible guidance
A clear and robust bullying and harassment policy should be implemented. This should be adapted to the particular business and culture and should outline examples of what would constitute workplace harassment. The policies should be made available to the whole workforce and should help staff to feel that harassment will not be tolerated and allegations will be treated seriously and consistently.
In addition to grievance reporting procedures, larger companies might wish to follow the lead of organisations such as Uber and introduce a hotline or ‘speak-up’ system which allows workers to report bullying and harassment to an independent body.
Senior staff and managers should be provided with training, both face to face and online training courses are popular methods for businesses. The training can help to recognise and resolve potential harassment situations.
Handling a complaint
It is often difficult for staff to make a complaint of sexual harassment. Employers can encourage employees to engage with them by taking a flexible and sensitive approach and they should also carefully consider who is best placed to investigate any sexual harassment complaints. Alternative reporting lines should be provided in the situation where a complaint is against a direct line manager and appropriate investigations and actions should be taken.
If you need support or guidance in putting robust policies and procedures in place to help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace or need advice in carrying out an investigation, please get in touch.