Sexual harassment – as with any other form of bullying or harassment – is completely unacceptable in the workplace. As an employer, it’s up to you to prevent it happening as both a moral and legal obligation to those who work for you.
What is sexual harassment?
The behaviour that constitutes sexual harassment is based on how it affects the recipient, not how it appears to another person. Therefore, the excuse of “it was just a bit of fun” is no defence. Remember that both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment too, and it doesn’t just apply to unwanted physical contact or obscene remarks. Sexual harassment can be:
Abusing a position of authority by making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected
Displaying lewd posters or imagery
Repeatedly pestering someone for a relationship or date after such advances are made clear to be unwelcome
Standing too close to someone
Leering or looking at someone in an inappropriate way
Such incidents do not have to happen at work either. Harassment from colleagues can take place at social events or away days, and can be both a once-off incident or occur over a period of time.
Why do employers need to act?
As well as being morally wrong, sexual harassment is against the law. The Equality Act 2010 states any form of harassment to be “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.
Employees will want to work in a safe environment where they’re treated with respect. Not meeting these needs will lead to an employer losing their best employees, with a subsequent loss in productivity and to the company’s reputation.
If an employer does not act to prevent it, an employee who experiences sexual harassment can take their case to an employment tribunal and seek compensation. In serious cases, this can amount to over £10,000.
What should an employer do?
Employers should communicate to employees that any form of bullying or harassment will not be tolerated. This should be outlined in the employee handbook, making it clear that harassment is unlawful and will be treated as a disciplinary offence. It should inform staff that any reported incidents will be taken seriously and also be confidential. If it is thought that complaints will not be acted on, employees will be reluctant to come forward.
Setting standards is important, and the policy on bullying and harassment should state what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at work. Training can also help employees gain awareness of what constitutes harassment.
Responding to sexual harassment complaints
If an employee makes a complaint that they’ve been sexually harassed, the employer must investigate it promptly and objectively. The investigation should focus on establishing the facts of the case and should be used as an opportunity to gather evidence and hear witness reports.
If a case appears to involve serious misconduct – which sexual harassment could be considered to be – then it may be appropriate to suspend the employee accused while the investigation takes place.
Some cases can be rectified informally, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes somebody might not be aware that their behaviour is unwelcome, so an informal discussion can lead to them stopping that behaviour.
If it is established that harassment has taken place, and an informal resolution is not possible, then the employer will need to decide on the appropriate disciplinary action to take. As with any disciplinary issue, it is important to follow a fair procedure in line with the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.