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How Employers Should Deal with Sexual Harassment Claims

workplace sexual harassmentThere is no doubt, the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal has opened a huge can of worms in terms of workplace sexual harassment, with the behavior of MP’s in House of Commons now also firmly in the limelight.

No form of harassment in the workplace is acceptable. The number of people, and in particularly women, coming forward with claims of sexual harassment is very concerning.

A recent poll carried out by Opinium Research, and widely reported in the Guardian, states that: “One in five women said that they have been victims of workplace sexual harassment. What’s more 14 per cent of people in the UK have experienced sexual harassment at work – rising to 20 per cent among women and dropping to seven per cent among men.”

Read more here.

As the door has literally been opened for people who have faced workplace sexual harassment, more and more UK employers could find themselves having to deal with this uncomfortable issue.

So we’ve come up with guidelines for employers who want to make sure that their employees are not subject to harassment and that they have the policies and procedures in place to deal with the issues should they come to light.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is identified as a discrete form of unlawful discrimination in the Equality Act 2010. It involves conduct that is unwanted from the perspective of the person on the receiving end and has the purpose or effect either of violating the person’s dignity or of creating an environment that he or she finds intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive.

Sexual harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature”.

Sexual harassment is a behaviour that has a sexual content or sexual connotation. Examples could include unwelcome physical touching, making sexual remarks to or about a person, telling jokes with a sexual content or displaying sexually explicit images on a computer screen.

The law says it’s only sexual harassment where the behaviour is meant to or has the effect of either:

  • violating your dignity, or
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

 Remember, if an employee is treated badly or less favourably because of their reaction to sexual harassment, they may have a claim under the Equality Act.

Dealing with workplace sexual harassment

If you are alerted to the fact that an employee in your business feels that they have been sexually harassed, you will need to address the matter as soon as possible.

As an employe,r you are legally responsible for the behaviour of your workers and most employers consider sexual harassment as a disciplinary offence. It is not surprising, therefore, that until recently most sexual harassment cases are not brought against the perpetrators, but against employers.

Employers will need to follow their dignity at work policy to support the employee who has been subjected to sexual harassment, and investigations will need to take place to make sure that the situation is dealt with appropriately. Employers need to take any claims of sexual harassment seriously, or face being left at risk of tribunal claims further down the line. Employers have a legal obligation to protect employee’s wellbeing and dignity at work.

Protecting the Business

The big danger for businesses is they allow joke emails and inappropriate language in the workplace carry out without recourse only to find that offence is taken and harassment is alleged.

Furthermore, the widespread use of jokes and inappropriate language could be put forward to suggest institutional sexism.

An employer is generally “vicariously liable” for the actions of its employees in the course of employment, so if a member of staff is found to have harassed a colleague, the employer will be held responsible.

However, there is an important exception; if the employer can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent harassment then they may escape liability.

It is not enough though, just to have a well-drafted anti-harassment policy; all employees must be told about it and should be aware of what they need to do if they believe they are being harassed on any grounds.

It’s also highly recommended that equal opportunity training should be carried out with all managers at the very least and make sure that they discipline any employee guilty of harassment.

If they take all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct, then the employer will not be liable for the actions of an employee guilty of harassment, but the victim can still bring a claim against the harasser personally.

Handling claims

If an employee comes to you alleging harassment, but then says that they do not want to take it any further. They need to understand that any such allegation is very serious and will have to be investigated.

Claims of this nature should be taken seriously; suspension of the alleged harasser considered and witness statements taken as soon as possible. Harassment findings should be dealt with seriously and consistently.

Even if the employer does not find in favour of the alleged victim, the employee still has the option to bring an employment tribunal claim, while still in employment, and the tribunal will consider all of the evidence when reaching its decision.

If you are still unsure of your legal responsibilities in terms of sexual harassment in the workplace or you don’t have the appropriate policies and procedures in place to manage an such allegations, then call the specialist team at HCHR today on the number below:

Workplace Sexual harassment