UK: Dealing With Complaints Of Harassment Arising From Work Related Social Events

Last Updated: 24 May 2001

1000 workers were recently surveyed about their behaviour at office parties. 6% said they had sex with a colleague, 10% felt that they had disgraced themselves, 11% felt that their partners would be disgusted by their behaviour at the office party and 32% said that "anything goes as long as it is fun". It is not surprising therefore that many complaints of harassment and in particular sexual harassment increase during and immediately after company social events.

If despite this a complaint is made then the employer should have procedures in place to deal with complaints of harassment. Employees must be aware of these procedures and confident that they will effectively deal with harassment. If employees have no confidence in either the company’s procedures or their implementation then problems, that may otherwise have been resolved, end up before the Employment Tribunal.

The aim of harassment procedures is to stop the undesirable conduct and prevent a recurrence. As well as harassment procedures an employer may wish to consider whether to appoint a harassment advisor. A harassed employee will only discuss harassment with someone with whom they feel comfortable. In the absence of an harassment advisor this may be their line manager, the Human Resources manager, or a trade union or employee representative.

If an employee reports an incident the person with whom they choose to raise the complaint should find out whether the employee wishes you to take formal action, informal action, or indeed any action at all. The employee should be encouraged to at least allow the matter to be raised informally with the alleged harasser.

In less serious situations it is best to encourage the employees who feel that they are being subject to harassment to approach the alleged harasser, personally, and tell them to stop, provided they feel comfortable doing so. In certain situations this may be effective since the alleged harasser may either be unaware of their actions or how their behaviour is being construed.

Often when a complaint of harassment has been made employers go in with all guns blazing, so as to make it clear that harassment will not be tolerated. However this approach can backfire. H.R. officers have indicated that if employers insist upon dealing with all incidents of harassment on a formal basis then harassed staff are less likely to report incidents. This is because they find that formal procedures are generally less confidential. A formal complaint can often exacerbate the problem between employees rather than alleviate it. To have an effective harassment policy employees must feel free to raise grievances about harassment and therefore it may be more appropriate to use an informal procedure to resolve complaints involving minor harassment.

Complaints that cannot be resolved informally should be raised formally under the employer’s grievance procedure. The formal procedure may also be more appropriate in instances of serious complaint.

Once a formal complaint has been made an investigating officer should be appointed. They should take the formal steps of investigating the complaint of harassment and documenting the investigation. If the allegation is serious the company should consider suspending or relocating the alleged harasser while the investigation takes place.

Following the investigation if the investigating officer finds grounds to support the allegation of harassment then the offending employee should be subject to the employer’s disciplinary procedures and any disciplinary measure that is deemed appropriate should be implemented. The aggrieved employee should either be informed that action is to be taken against the harasser or if no action is to be taken then the reasons for this.

All complaints, whether formal or informal must be taken seriously and investigated as confidentially as possible. The formal procedure may also be more appropriate in instances of serious complaint. Employers should keep a record of all incidents of harassment, the action they have taken to stop the harassment and also details of any requests for assistance that they have made to their legal advisors. This information will be required should the matter ever find its way to an Employment Tribunal Hearing.

Before a company social event, to avoid complaints, employers should restate their harassment policy and confirm that they are opposed to harassment in any form. It should be emphasised that unwanted sexual advances or racial comments, for example, are not appropriate even in a social environment.

It must be remembered that harassment can take many forms not raised in this article these include racial harassment, bullying, intimidation, "mobbing", and victimisation. Harassment can be used as evidence for claims of unfair dismissal, personal injury, breach of health and safety at work legislation. Harassment can even be a criminal offence. Only sexual harassment has been considered here.

Any employer in doubt as to how to deal with harassment in the workplace, and how to implement the appropriate policies should take immediate advice as prevention is better (and considerably less expensive) than the cure.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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