Sexual harassment in the workplace – What should you do about it?
From Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to senior politicians in Westminster, allegations of sexual harassment have made headline news across the world. Employment law solicitor Laura Clark looks at what employers can do to support their employees.
Such is the concern in the halls of Government, that party leaders have come together to agree on a new grievance procedure for those working in Parliament.
But, what are the obligations on employers in relation to sexual harassment, and what can be done to create an inclusive environment?
Wilkin Chapman solicitor Laura Clark starts by asking the question: What exactly is sexual harassment?
Well, employment law says that sexual harassment occurs when one person engages in unwanted conduct of a ‘sexual nature’, and that conduct ‘has the purpose or effect of violating dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’ for another’.
The behaviour can be any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching, forms of sexual assault, and sexual jokes. So, in short, pretty much all of the allegations that have been hitting the headlines recently.
But who is liable when a claim of sexual harassment is brought? Both individuals and employers should certainly take note of the answer to this question.
Laura explains that, while claims may be brought in an employment tribunal by the alleged victim against the individual ‘harasser’, employers can also be held liable for harassment which is done “in the course of their employment”...
But, some may ask, what does ‘course of employment’ actually mean and what is the dividing line between what is work and what is personal?
This is indeed a little blurred – especially if the conduct in question takes place off the premises or outside working hours, at social gatherings for example.
There is also a risk that claims could also be brought in the civil courts under the ‘Protection from Harassment’ legislation,, with case law confirming that employers can also be liable for such claims.
It goes without saying that any successful harassment claim will have a financial impact on the employer, but as we are seeing, the reputational impact could cause much greater damage - and on a much wider and more serious scale.
Laura adds that prevention is certainly better than cure when it comes to such matters, and a workplace free from sexual harassment in the first place is the ideal solution. There is no silver bullet for this, but the following ideas may be useful:
- Have and implement policies on equal opportunities and anti-harassment and bullying
- Ensure that all employees are aware of the policies and procedures
- Train all staff in harassment issues, and encourage victims to come forward with any complaints
- Ensure that complaints are dealt with effectively.
It is worth pointing out that if an employer can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from carrying out harassment, then this could be an effective defence to a tribunal claim.