How Should Employers Manage Sexual Harassment at Work

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Sexual harassment in the workplace affects over half of women, and men, in the UK and, despite the Me Too movement, most of these cases go unreported.

In fact, a recent study by Young Women’s Trust found that a third of women do not know how to report sexual harassment and a fifth state that they are too afraid to report it to their employer.

As an employer, it is your duty to oversee the safety of all your employees and this includes making sure that they feel comfortable in the workplace and do not endure any form of harassment whilst at work.

If you are unsure as to how you can fulfil this responsibility then start by understanding what sexual harassment is, what your workplace policy should say about it and how to manage any claims that an employee makes.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is any sexual behaviour that is unwanted, offensive or makes someone feel uncomfortable, intimidated or unsafe.

This can be a huge range of acts from making a sexual comment or joke to touching someone inappropriately – all of which must be handled with sensitivity and punished equally.

Sexual harassment affects both men and women of all levels within a business, so you should never have any preconceived notions about who is more at risk.

What Does The Law Say About Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment at work is described as a form of unlawful discrimination in the Equality Act 2010. Those found guilty of this act can not only lose their job but also find themselves in prison depending on the severity of their actions.

As an employer, you are generally liable for the actions of your employees and if you do not take all reasonable action to prevent harassment in the workplace and the necessary actions following any reports then you could find yourself in an employment tribunal.

What Should Your Workplace Policy Say About Sexual Harassment?

Your employee handbooks should include a section on harassment and bullying in the workplace and within that would fall your policy on sexual harassment.

It should clearly communicate to employees what is defined as sexual harassment and that it is not tolerated under any circumstances and that if a claim is made against you, that is proven, then matters will be dealt with in line with the business’ disciplinary policy, and that it could lead to dismissal for gross misconduct.

You must also outline how, and to whom, employees need to report sexual harassment and that where possible full confidentiality is guaranteed, however you must ensure that they are aware that should matters progress any statement taken as part of the investigative process will be used as evidence within any disciplinary setting.

Typically, employees would be advised to report to their line manager, who should deal with matters sensitively and in accordance with any grievance processes. Should an employee feel unable to report to their manager they should then report it to someone in authority, who is able to deal with matters.

You should also include some advice for those who may experience sexual harassment to make their case stronger such as keeping a written record or documentation of any sexual harassment such as email or textmessages with dates, times and locations.

How To Handle Sexual Harassment Allegations At Work

If an employee does make a sexual harassment allegation against another employee or a senior member of staff, then you must take immediate action and handle the accusation seriously and fairly.

You will need to put a procedure in place and communicate it amongst all senior members of staff, so they are aware of what to do should an employee report anything to them.

The first step may be would usually be collecting a statement from all parties involved and gathering any evidence. During this period, you may need to suspend the alleged perpetrator to protect them and any alleged victim, this will allow you to investigate the matter fairly and impartially. Suspension is merely a holding measure and is no inference of guilt.

Once investigations are concluded and should there be sufficient evidence to warrant further action, you will then need to go through your usual disciplinary procedure and conduct the necessary meetings to make a final decision as to your course of action.

Throughout this entire process, you need to ensure that there is confidentiality which can be difficult in some work environments such as an open plan office.

What Can Employers Do To Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

To deter any sort of bad behaviour, the best thing an employer can do is educate their staff about what is sexual harassment and the consequences for anyone who is found guilty of sexual harassment.

Often, issues such as sexual harassment are still looked upon as ‘harmless’ and just “banter” and many people don’t feel as though they will be punished for such an act.

Therefore, you need to ensure that you follow-through and take any and every report seriously so that your employees are aware that harassment will be dealt with on the same scale as theft, bullying or vandalism.

You also have a duty to ensure that your employees feel comfortable enough to report any sexual harassment to you or another senior member of staff.

This relationship is established through strong communication and open dialogue amongst you and your employees and one of example of this is regular 1-2-1 meetings.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a major issue and you must do everything in your power to deter this type of behaviour and protect your employees. If you require further support or advice on this issue, then please call us today on 0845 2626 260

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