Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The Harvey Weinstein scandal, and allegations at Westminster, amongst others, has once again placed the spotlight on sexual harassment reporting. Victims of sexual harassment are often reluctant to report incidents for fear of retaliation, being disbelieved or public embarrassment. Sexual harassment might be obvious, insidious, persistent or an isolated incident. It can also occur in written communication, by phone or through email, not just face-to-face. It is likely to be manifested in:

  • spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone, unwanted physical contact
  • leering at an employee’s body
  • unwelcome remarks about a person’s age, dress, appearance, or marital status, jokes at personal expense, offensive language, gossip, slander
  • posters, calendars, graffiti, obscene gestures,
  • coercion for sexual favours

Peter Stanway, our BackupHR™ legal expert comments:

The first thing you need is some sort of an anti-bullying and harassment workplace policy, which acknowledges senior management’s commitment to tackling and eradicating sexual harassment. It should set out the type of behaviour that is prohibited, the consequences of such behaviour and the procedure for making a complaint and conducting investigations. A Dignity at Work Policy goes beyond an equal opportunities policy.

Managers must be trained to recognise what is, and is not, acceptable and how to deal with the issues in an impartial and fair way. They need to be aware that dealing with sexual harassment complaints will be emotional and personal for the parties involved, so need to be handled sensitively and non-judgementally.

Any complaints about sexual harassment need to be taken very seriously, as failure to do so can make them much worse. Complaints should be investigated promptly and in a professional manner. There is no need to require a complainant to provide “proof” prior to conducting an investigation. The purpose of the investigation is to gather information and evidence. Even if the alleged harasser is senior and credible, and the complainant is junior and emotional, you must not discount the complaint or refuse to investigate, just because the complaint seems unlikely.

It is prudent to provide support to both individuals while the investigation, and any subsequent disciplinary action is conducted. You should consider temporarily changing working arrangements for the duration of the investigation, particularly if it is against the complainant’s line manager or a close colleague. Suspension of the alleged perpetrator may be necessary. The complainant should be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and its ultimate outcome.

Employees should also receive training on bullying and harassment in the workplace so they are aware that such behaviour is not acceptable. This should include educating employees that ‘workplace banter’ is often a euphemism for bullying and harassment, if it causes offence to others. Tribunals have rejected the notion that a harassment claim can be defended on the basis that sexist remarks were “only banter”. Staff can feel humiliated or offended without it being obvious or apparent to others, and may happen in the workplace without an employer’s knowledge.

Equal Opportunities and Dignity at Work policies must have the support of senior management, and the organisation needs a culture that fully supports victims of sexual harassment. The Weinstein revelations will not go away anytime soon, so sexual harassment will continue to be a high profile issue. The sheer volume of people speaking out about the problem means that a new zero-tolerance attitude towards sexual harassment is emerging.

The guidance provided in this article is just that – guidance. Before taking any action make sure that you know what you are doing, or call us for specific advice.