Following the recent media reports highlighting a pop star’s wife being accused of sexual harassment against a former employee, employers are becoming more conscious of sexual harassment within the workplace. These complaints can, ultimately, be costly and forethought should be given on how to avoid this behaviour at work.
Employers should be aware that sexual harassment can take more than one form within the workplace. Anti-discrimination laws protect workers against unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and unwanted conduct due to the person’s sex or gender where this has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, degrading, humiliating or hostile environment. Additionally, sexual harassment can also rise where an employee rejects, or submits to, sexual advances and is then treated less favourably by the harasser.
The greatest opportunity for sexual harassment within the workplace inevitably comes from jokes, inappropriate behaviour or ‘banter’. These incidents can occur quite openly, for example the gossiping around the water dispenser, or can be private and unseen usually via company or private email messages. It only takes one badly worded ‘funny’ email to present a risk of a harassment claim. Correct implementation of internet or email policies can significantly reduce the risk of sexual harassment by making employees aware of the restrictions on their mailing content and create provisions for active content monitoring.
Employers will be vicariously liable for any acts of sexual harassment by their employees during the course of their employment, including any events which extend the working day such as work parties or outings. The employer will not be held responsible where they can show they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment from occurring. These steps can include equal opportunity training with all managers and staff, having and implementing an anti-harassment policy and communicating the process to follow if employees believe they have suffered a form of sexual harassment.
Employees and managers should be made aware that claims of sexual harassment are serious and these will be treated as such. Not dealing with a claim appropriately could lead to a judgment that the harassment has been facilitated and institutionalised within the workplace. Any harassment claims should be fully investigated and evidence, such as witness statements, should be sought in a timely manner before a decision over whether harassment occurred can be made. In circumstances of serious harassment, suspension of the alleged harasser should be considered.If you need any clarification on this issue then contact the Peninsula Advice Service on 0844 892 2772.