Thousands of Google staff across the world staged a series of walkouts earlier this month in protest at claims of sexual harassment and gender inequality.
They follow allegations of sexual misconduct made against senior executives, which organisers say are the most high-profile examples of thousands of similar cases across the company.
The protest came a week after Google gave a £70m severance package to the company’s former CEO, Andy Rubin, after being inundated with sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Rubin denied the accusations, and Google have stepped up their policies to eradicate sexual harassment at work. Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, stated that the company supported the employees who took part in the protests.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment doesn’t just apply to unwanted physical contact or obscene comments. It can also be:
Abusing a position of authority, by making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected
Displaying lewd posters or imagery
Pestering someone after advances are made clear to be unwelcome
Standing too close to someone
Leering or looking at someone inappropriately
Sexual harassment can happen to both men and women, and doesn’t have to happen at work. Harassment can take place at social events and away days, and can be both a one-off incident or over a period of time.
What does the law say?
Sexual harassment is not only morally wrong, it’s against the law too. 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”.
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. Like all discrimination claims, damages for sexual harassment are uncapped. It’s also important to note that the Company can also be legally liable for the actions of their staff in the course of employment whether or not the employer knew about/approved of the conduct.
What can employers do?
Employees will want to work in a safe environment where they’re treated with respect. Failing to do so will lead to an employer losing their best employees, with a subsequent loss of productivity. As Google found out, it also causes considerable damage to a company’s reputation.
Employers can demonstrate that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent harassment. It should be communicated to employees that any form of bullying and harassment will not be tolerated, making it clear that harassment is unlawful and will be treated as a disciplinary offence. This information should be included in the employee handbook.
The information should also make clear that reports of harassment will be taken seriously, be investigated, and are confidential. If not, then employees may be reluctant to come forward.
If an employee makes a complaint that they’ve been sexually harassed, the incident must be investigated promptly. The investigation should establish the facts of the case, with evidence and witness reports.
If the case appears to involve serious misconduct – which sexual harassment could be considered to be – then it may be appropriate to suspend the accused employee while the investigation is carried out.
Sometimes an informal discussion can be enough to bring a case to a close, for example if someone doesn’t initially realise that their behaviour is unwelcome.
However, if it is established that harassment has taken place and an informal resolution is not appropriate or cannot be reached, then the employer will need to decide on disciplinary action to take. As with any other disciplinary issue, it is important to follow a fair procedure in line with the Acas Code of Practice.