Sadly, sexual harassment is still prevalent in many areas of society and, as the #MeToo movement has shown, across many different types of workplaces.
The term “sexual harassment” covers a wide variety of behaviours, some of which might not be immediately obvious as areas of concern, such as comments about dress or appearance and general office banter or teasing. There are also situations where the risk of a sexual harassment claim is heightened, for example, at work socials or where there is a personal relationship going on between staff.
Fast growing businesses need to ensure that they nurture the right conditions within their working environments to prevent sexual harassment. A culture of zero tolerance towards harassment and discrimination is a good start.
Also, litigation involving sexual harassment is not only a potential PR disaster, it is expensive, likely to suck up large amounts of management time and negatively affect staff morale and possibly recruitment.
But, even the most progressive employer may occasionally find itself dealing with a complaint of sexual harassment from one of its staff; there are some important things which it can do to be in the best position to defend any such legal claim.
Have a good suite of policies in place.
Ideally, an employer would have separate policies for sexual harassment and other forms of harassment. Anti-harassment policies should dovetail with other relevant policies such as social media and disciplinary policies. For example, sexual harassment should be mentioned in the disciplinary policy as an example of gross misconduct.
Training, training, training.
Important policies such as the anti-harassment policy should form part of any induction training. Just asking people to read the policy is not enough, they need to understand what it is and what it requires of them. Training needs to be tailored to the audience and should be carried out regularly, ideally annually. Engaging the services of an external, specialist trainer should help to ensure high quality content.
Policies are meaningless if the workforce isn’t aware of them.
A policy is not just something to file away in a folder! It needs to be communicated and explained to staff, on a regular basis. For example, sending it around to staff before any significant social events such as the Christmas party.
Keep it current.
Policies should have an annual health check and be updated to reflect any legal changes and trends apparent from internal complaints, staff surveys and/ or exit interviews.
Make it your job to detect harassment.
Employers should not bury their heads in the sand and wait for any issues to become too big to ignore. If potential problems can be nipped in the bud, legal claims may be avoided. This is likely to involve pro-active behaviour, talking to staff and creating an environment in which people feel safe talking about their concerns. For example, during informal one-to-ones, at return-to-work meetings and exit interviews. An annual, anonymised staff survey may also be helpful to understand attitudes and perceptions.
Make it simple for staff to report concerns.
Providing the right tools for staff, such as external reporting systems which allow anonymous reports, shows the employer is serious about dealing with the problem. Some employers are making use of apps which permit real time and anonymous reporting.
Deal with harassment complaints sympathetically, efficiently and effectively.
Unreasonable delay in dealing with a complaint suggests the employer either does not take it seriously, or has something to hide, so don’t let a matter drift on for too long. If a complaint is upheld then appropriate disciplinary action against the perpetrator of the harassment should follow.
We regularly help our clients draft and review their harassment and discrimination policies and deliver high quality training to ensure staff understand those policies. Our bespoke training looks at what is acceptable behaviour, how policies on equality, anti-harassment and anti-bullying work, give examples of how things can go wrong and consider why this matters.
Please get in touch if you would like to discuss our training packages.