How to ensure harassment has no place in your business

  • Discrimination
Workplace harassment
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

Harassment and in particular sexual harassment continue to be significant issues in the workplace and dominate headlines. We thought it was a timely opportunity, therefore, to remind you of the law on harassment and how employers should act to prevent it from happening.

Harassment is unwanted behaviour, related to a protected characteristic (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage/civil partnership, pregnancy/maternity, race, sexual orientation) which has either violated the person’s dignity; or created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person. Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Harassment can be a one-off incident or repeated behaviour which might make the individual feel disrespected, frightened, insulted, intimated, and threatened. It does not matter if the behaviour was not intended to have that effect or make the individual feel that way as it will still be harassment if the unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic has that effect.

Conduct can amount to harassment if it is related to a protected characteristic so can cover conduct that, regardless of the form it takes, is by reason of a protected characteristic, for example, shunning a co-worker because they are gay, because they are perceived to be gay, or because someone else is gay. Conduct can also amount to harassment if it is otherwise related to a protected characteristic because of the form that it takes, for example, engaging in racist or homophobic banter that might offend colleagues regardless of their own race or sexual orientation.

Employees should expect to be able to come to work and not face harassment. An employer should therefore have a zero-tolerance stance towards harassment in the workplace. Harassment is a form of discrimination and is unlawful. If employees are harassed in the workplace, they can bring a claim in an employment tribunal against the individual who behaved in that way but also against the employer. Employers can therefore be liable for harassment taking place even if they were not involved in the wrongdoing, didn’t know, or condone such behaviour.

Employment tribunals will expect employers to have certain things in place and have taken certain steps to demonstrate their zero-tolerance stance. This will include having an anti-harassment policy which may be a standalone policy or part of a wider equality policy. Employers should ensure that they live and breathe their policies throughout the organisation so that they are not simply ‘ticking boxes’.

Employers should require employees to undertake training on what harassment is, provide examples of what it is, and how it can happen even when someone does not mean it. Employees should be clear that all forms of harassment are not acceptable, and action will be taken if it is found that someone has been subjected to harassment. Employees should know that it is so serious that they are risking their job if they subject someone to harassment.

There should be clear and simple mechanisms in place to report alleged harassment that are open to all to use, for example, by someone who has seen alleged harassment occurring and employees who allege that they have been harassed themselves. Reports of harassment should be taken seriously no matter who the alleged harasser is and the employee making the allegation should not be subject to a detriment.

What the next steps are should also be clear so that a meeting is swiftly arranged where more details of the allegation can be gathered. Nothing should go unaddressed, if it is not appropriate then it should not be allowed in the workplace. A culture of respect and professionalism should be communicated from the outset and followed at every organisational level from the top-down.

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