Sexual harassment at work in media spotlight

Recently, there has been a spate of stories about sexual harassment in the workplace.

The founder of venture capitalist firm 500 Startups has resigned after claims of sexual harassment. In his blog post entitled “I’m a Creep. I’m Sorry.” he admitted to making “advances towards multiple women in work-related situations” and putting “people in compromising and inappropriate situations”.

Earlier this year, a former engineer at taxi app company Uber explained in a detailed blog post how HR and management had systematically ignored her concerns and that of a number of other female engineers who had suffered similar experiences. She explained instances of harassment, discrimination, and threats of retaliation for bringing up issues with HR and the ineffectiveness of the company to deal with employee concerns. Following this, Uber investigated 215 claims, including discrimination, sexual harassment, unprofessional behaviour and bullying. It was then reported that 20 employees, including some senior executives, had been dismissed.

These very high-profile and public cases should act as a reminder to employers to take cases of sexual harassment seriously and act when issues arise. If you are not listening to your employees, then blog readers and the media will!

What is sexual harassment?

Under the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is defined 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.

It can take place in the workplace, at a work social event, on a work trip or at a client’s workplace and by different people such as a manager, colleague or customer.

Examples of sexual harassment include jokes about a colleague’s sex life, unwelcome touching, demands for sexual favours or sending offensive emails.

How can you prevent sexual harassment in your workplace?

The most important point to take away is that anything that an employee does during the course of their employment will be deemed as having been also done by the employer, irrespective of whether the employer knew or approved the action or comment constituting sexual harassment. In simple English, if an employee is found to have harassed an employee, the employer will be held responsible. To avoid this, you must be able to prove that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing harassment in your workplace.

A good starting point is to develop and promote a working environment where employees are encouraged to report any cases of sexual harassment. Employees may be reluctant about coming forward for many reasons, such as they feel embarrassed or are scared of what the consequences will be. Therefore, it is critical that employees believe that their concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with in a sensitive and confidential manner.

You should remind your employees that it is their responsibility to ensure that their behaviour does not cause offence and to stop immediately if they are told that it is unwanted or offensive. Employees need to be aware of the people around them and how their comments may affect the feelings of others. You should also make them aware that all allegations will be investigated and disciplinary action will be taken when required.

It is always helpful to have documented policies and procedures, detailing what your standards and expectations are in this regard and, where possible, to train managers and supervisors to identify concerns.

How do you deal with a complaint of sexual harassment?

Once you have received a complaint about sexual harassment, you must investigate the matter promptly and thoroughly. The key question to ask is “could the comment or action be reasonably considered to have caused offence?” If no reasonable person would be offended, then no sexual harassment has occurred.

Please note that an Employment Tribunal will look at a number of factors when considering whether the act is a form of harassment, such as the employee’s perception, the circumstances of the case and whether or not it is reasonable for the actions to be deemed as harassment.

The way you resolve an issue will depend on the merits of the case, but it could include an informal discussion, counselling, mediation or going through formal disciplinary procedures. In very serious cases, it may result in dismissal for gross misconduct.

Don’t leave yourself open to claims. Contact your Ellis Whittam to find out how we can help you.

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