How to stamp out sexual harassment

Kate Palmer - HR Advice and Consultancy Director

October 31 2017

You’ll have no doubt heard or read about the separate sordid sexual harassment complaints against Harvey Weinstein, founder of Hollywood movie giant Miramax, and the actor Kevin Spacey. Here in the UK, Parliament is taking action to introduce ‘zero tolerance’ of sexual harassment after a spate of claims about disturbing behaviour. As well as the abhorrent nature of the incidents—which at the time of writing remain allegations—what’s so shocking is the prevalence of sexual harassment at work, with thousands worldwide since speaking up about their experiences on social media. It’s clear that no matter how big or how small your business is, sexual harassment can happen anywhere, to anyone. And you, as an employer, must do all you can to try to stamp it out. What sexual harassment is Sexual harassment is when someone experiences unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or conduct that relates to the protected characteristic of sex. This conduct violates his or her dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It can happen repeatedly or be a one-off incident. The conduct doesn’t have to be aimed directly at the person who feels humiliated; they can simply overhear or witness it. It’s important to note sexual harassment occurs if someone has submitted to or rejected unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. For example, someone demoted after refusing a manager’s sexual advances can claim sexual harassment. Break the culture of silence If you’re ever unaware of any staff concerns about sexual harassment, it could be highly damaging for your business. People who experience sexual harassment—or others who witness it—need to feel comfortable enough to raise their concerns. That means that it’s crucial for you, as an employer, to create a supportive culture. The easiest way to create an open, honest culture is to take each allegation seriously. Never ignore concerns based on your personal opinion of any complaint. Investigate and take action Carry out a thorough investigation into every allegation, interview witnesses and take statements. Disciplinary action should follow as necessary. To make it easier for affected staff to come forward, give someone the role of receiving any potential sexual harassment complaints. As it’s a sensitive issue, train up your allocated person to carry out difficult conversations with staff. He or she will then need to report on the concerns so you can start taking action. Set out clear company rules Use an anti-harassment policy to set out the rules on acceptable behaviour at work. The policy can include a list of types of behaviour that could constitute sexual harassment, including different forms such as speech, jokes, touch, emails, and other written material like posters. State the consequences of committing sexual harassment in your policy both to deter staff and to make it easier for you to take any necessary disciplinary action. Finally, train your new starters on these rules and repeat the training periodically to limit the chances of anyone claiming they were unaware of them.

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