Sexual Harassment

16 April 2019

When a worker raises a complaint about harassment, the employer has a legal duty to investigate. Employers should tend to the welfare of the affected worker as soon as they hear about the complaint.

As an employer, you should aim to promote a culture where everyone can comfortably report harassment claims. Staff should feel safe in the knowledge and confidence that you will deal with the allegation appropriately. 

You should clearly outline in your behaviour policy what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace. The policy should include a complaints or grievance procedure for dealing with such allegations. Without them, the consequences can hugely affect staff performance, business production, and brand reputation.

In this guide, we’ll show you the steps involved in completing a sexual harassment complaints procedure. 

We’ll also look at what law sexual harassment falls under in Ireland. And outline how to stop sexual harassment from happening in the first place. 

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is an ‘unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature’. It completely violates a person’s dignity. And can create an intimidating, degrading, and offensive environment for the victim.

Under Ireland’s Employment Equality Acts 1998 - 2015, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. If an employee suffers sexual harassment at work, the employer may be held responsible for failing to prevent it. 

In the workplace, sexual harassment can arise between co-workers, managers and subordinates, and owner employers and staff.

Forms of sexual harassment in the workplace

There can be many forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. It can be a once off incident or a series of incidents involving unwanted conduct, like:

  • Sexual comment or jokes
  • Sending emails with sexual content
  • Displaying sexual drawings or pictures
  • Unwelcome sexual advances and other forms of physical sexual assault

While misconduct can be experienced by all genders, sexual harassment of women in the workplace is the most evident. Victims should express to the harasser that their behaviour is unwanted. If they continue with their misbehaviour, the victim should report it to HR, management, or even the Gardaí.

Unfortunately, most victims won’t speak up about being sexually harassed at work. They may feel that their complaint won’t be investigated seriously. Or that their complaints will lead to uncomfortable situations in the workplace.

Consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace

The consequences of harassment claims can have enormous impacts on both the employer and employees. They can affect business finances, workforce morale, and a company’s reputation. The following are just some of the consequences of sexual harassment for both the employer and employees:

  • Legal costs and compensation claims.
  • Impacts on business productivity and brand reputation.
  • Mental and physical health effects (like stress reactions, sleep disorders, and lowered self-esteem).
  • Toxic work-environment which can affect worker-retention and recruitment.

Sexual harassment policy

It is crucial that you have a policy which aims to show how to stop sexual harassment from happening in the workplace. This will assure victims that all claims will be investigated and followed by legal proceedings if necessary.

A sexual harassment policy should set out what constitutes acceptable conduct for all employees. It helps employees to understand their rights and provides them with the confidence to raise claims.

You should also have staff sign a form confirming that they have read and understand your workplace behaviour policy. A typical policy can include: 

  •       Clear definition of what constitutes sexual harassment
  •       Inappropriate behaviour that is unacceptable 
  •       Zero-tolerance for sexual harassment
  •       Strict investigation procedures
  •       Consequences and punishments for those found guilty

How to report sexual harassment in the workplace

You should treat sexual harassment complaints very seriously whether handling them informally or formally. And remember that even if the behaviour happened outside of the workplace, you could still be held responsible for sexual harassment suffered by employees. 

It’s likely that employees will reach out to their direct line-manager for harassment complaints. They might present a written account or communicate privately. You should make sure that your line managers:

  • Understand the seriousness of sexual harassment
  • Have information on how the law defines sexual harassment
  • Have received training for managing a sexual harassment claim or know where to direct the employee

How to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace

Harassment complaints can be managed formally or informally. In certain circumstances, where it is clear that gross misconduct has occurred, it may lead to summary dismissals without investigation.

You should speak to the accused individual after the harassment complaint is reported. Harassers should receive notification of any allegation and have a right to respond to the allegations.  It is vital the harasser understands the seriousness of the claim and the consequences that follow.

If the victim raises a formal complaint, you are required to process a formal procedure to resolve the matter.  If you don’t, you risk suffering severe consequences like compensation payments and reputational damage to your business. Here are steps to follow on how to process sexual harassment complaints:

  • Inform both parties that a complaint has been reported. 
  • Share details on the investigation, including a timeframe. If any meetings are held, both sides are legally allowed to be accompanied by representatives.
  • An impartial manager should carry out the investigation. They should provide a written statement of their final decision.
  • Document all details of the proceedings. This can stand as evidence that you took reasonable steps for managing the complaint.
  • See if further measures are needed. Maybe the victim requires further support. Or the harasser should be re-assigned to another team.

You should be careful not to dismiss anyone without proper investigation. If an employment tribunal found you guilty of unfair dismissal, you could face compensation pay-outs and further unnecessary business disruption.

How to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace

Put a strong policy in place to reduce the risk of harassment in the workplace. Here are a few guidelines on how to stop sexual harassment happening in the workplace:

  • All working staff should have a clear understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment.
  • Introduce training to prevent harassment and discriminatory treatment happening in your workplace.
  • Make sure all employees understand and accept your business’s sexual harassment policy.
  • Have a simple procedure for reporting sexual harassment and other forms of harassment.
  • Deal with all claims of harassment and discrimination immediately.
  • Raise awareness of staff welfare and workplace behaviour policies.
  • Have a zero-tolerance policy and outline consequences for breaking the policy rules.

Frequently asked questions about sexual harassment

Can sexual harassment happen outside of work?

Not all business owners are aware of it but employers are responsible for sexual harassment that happens both inside and outside of their business. If you don’t take steps to prevent employees from suffering harassment, the Employment Equality Acts could make you liable for any harassment suffered by your workers. Your duty to protect staff includes taking measures to prevent sexual harassment by customers, other employees, clients and other business contacts.

The Act prohibits employees from harassing each other during and outside of working hours. Sexual harassment on public transport, at an office party, or even on social media may all lead to harassment claims.

You should make sure you include this point in your sexual harassment policy and training materials. It’s also best practice to have every worker sign a document confirming they understand the policy.

Can sexual harassment be verbal?

Sexual harassment behaviours can be verbal, non-verbal, or through physical behaviour. Remember, it is any form of unwanted behaviour that creates an uncomfortable and hostile environment.

Verbal sexual harassment in the workplace includes a worker making sexual suggestive comments about an employee, like:

  • Commenting on their body or appearance
  • Discussing one’s sexual life or fantasies
  • Making catcalling or lewd noises
  • Requesting sexual favours
  • Repeatedly asking a colleague out on a date after they have clearly expressed no interest

Is flirting a form of sexual harassment?

Flirting between colleagues is not necessarily illegal. However, it is important for all workers to keep their behaviour respectful and professional. And keep awareness of how flirting behaviour affects others.

A line-manager flirting with their subordinates does not constitute professional behaviour, whether or not their actions were accepted. Such behaviour can lead to employees feeling uncomfortable to work with their managers.

Peninsula Ireland can provide information and support on sexual harassment

All workers should comply with a zero-tolerance policy toward all forms of harassment in the workplace. And they should feel confident in raising sexual harassment complaints to you or their HR contact.

Of course, every incident and claim will have individual circumstances. But assure them that all complaints will be dealt with efficiently. This will help to reduce any hostile environment that sexual harassment situations can present.

Peninsula Ireland can offer expert support and advice on how to deal with sexual harassment. We also provide an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) with information on behaviour policies and employee wellbeing management.

Peninsula Ireland clients get access to 24/7 HR consultation with our employment specialists. And if you are not yet a client, you can still enjoy free advice from one of our business experts. Simply call us on 0818 923 923.

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