The recent spate of sexual harassment allegations is empowering more and more women to come forward and report their experiences of unwanted and inappropriate sexual behaviour in the office.
Under the Equalities Act 2010, employers have a duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent employees from harassing one another. This includes sexual harassment inside and outside the office at work-related social events.
Employees who have been sexually harassed can go to the Employment Tribunal, which, unlike for unfair dismissal, can award unlimited compensation for any loss of earnings connected with the harassment should they find in the employee's favour. The tribunal can also award compensation for injury to feelings which may include loss of confidence and personal relationship damage. As most employers will be aware, this could amount to a large sum in addition to the reputational, employee relations and organisational damage which result from sexual harassment claims.
In 2016, the former HR director of Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust was awarded £830,000 after she was constructively dismissed and discriminated against following her rejection of the sexual advances of the trust's chairman; a costly day in court for the employer but no doubt a much worse and damaging experience for the victim. Last year, a TUC report found that more than half of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. This arguably shows an endemic problem in the workplace which employers need to address.
However, the problem is not insurmountable. Frances O'Grady (TUC General Secretary) considers that there is a lot that employers can and should do to make women safer at work. The process of creating an inclusive and equal culture may not be quick and easy but it is certainly achievable. With the right policies and training in place, employers should be able to ensure a workplace free from sexual harassment. Ms O'Grady is surely right: it is now time for employers to start taking this matter more seriously in order to create a safe workplace which does not violate its employees' dignity, or has the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Positive changes employers can put in place include:
- Introduce sexual harassment policies which are unambiguous and prominent in your workplace. It should be clear that the employer has a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment. These policies should be enforced and men can't be allowed to get away with the "just banter" defence.
- These policies should take into account the use of social media, work phones and laptops and outside the office at work-related social events. Where there is a union, input from union representatives in creating sexual harassment policies should be sought.
- Ensure that all employees undergo training on sexual harassment. This training should comprise what sexual harassment looks like, the relevant law, what workplace policies on sexual harassment say and how sexual harassment can be reported.
- Ensure that both management and HR are aware of how they should deal with sexual harassment claims.
- Ensure that all employees are aware of the action they should take if they become a victim of sexual harassment or witness it. Everyone working within an organisation should be able to take action following sexual harassment, including those on temporary or casual contracts, agency workers and sub-contractors.
- Ensure that those who make a complaint of sexual harassment are taken seriously and that there are no negative repercussions on the victim after making such a complaint.
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.