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Ensuring your workplace is equipped to deal with sexual harassment allegations?

Although harassment is firmly front and centre in the media it would appear in a large number of workplaces there has been little practical impact.

If we now have a newly empowered workforce who are willing to raise issues and employers are not dealing having to deal with issues then some employers are either naturally lucky or have created a workforce where discrimination does not occur or is dealt with before it becomes a major problem.

How have they achieved this?

They have employees who treat each other with respect

Problems occur when employees do not behave in an acceptable way to each other and create an environment where co-workers feel uncomfortable. This becomes a legal problem if the behaviour and language used is connected with a protected characteristic such as the sex of the individual. 

Using power to pressurise a co-worker to accept a date, relationship or even a level of intimacy which is unacceptable to them is clearly going to fall within this category, so how have they avoided this happening?

Setting expectations of behaviour in the workplace (and out of it when still with co-workers) is a first step.

Having policies on inclusion, diversity, equal opportunities or respect in the workplace is common however effective communication of the expectations embodied in these policies is not so prevalent.

Policies should be communicated through training and become embodied in the organisation. It is recommended that from induction throughout employment the requirement to treat co-workers with respect is emphasised.

The protection of employees is taken seriously

Making fun of political correctness is a national pass time. Allowing mockery of necessary protections or individuals raising issues to undermine them is not acceptable.  Political correctness is often used as a defence by those individuals whose comments and behaviour is being criticised and who, sometimes, may genuinely be surprised that their comment has caused offence. 

No one wants environments which are so clinical to be utterly without humour, however, the level and tone of “banter” needs to be carefully considered.  It is a hard balance for employers as good humoured teasing can be viewed differently not just by different employees but even by the same employee depending on their mood and circumstances.

Employers and managers need to be brave in setting and enforcing the line of acceptable language.

Employers need to take feedback on whether staff are comfortable with their approach.

Employees are confident that, if there is an issue, they will be taken seriously and it will be resolved.

Employees need to be comfortable that addressing an issue will not destroy their career.

Many employees take the view that if they trigger a grievance process this will have an impact on their career and they will be seen as a troublemaker.  Historically it was often the complainant who was “exit-ed” from the business rather than the perpetrator and this is still a live fear for many employees.

If employees do not raise issues the result is often that the problem escalates and becomes more difficult to address. It is common for the employee to leave and the employee who caused the problem being unaware of the impact of their actions (or believing their behaviour is sanctioned by the employer) and likely to repeat them.

If there is a step in either the grievance process or a bespoke harassment process which allows an informal approach to be taken employees are likely to feel more comfortable in mentioning issues in initial stages before they become a more serious problem. Given that issues in the beginning may well be relatively low key and easier to address. It seems sensible that organisations tackle issues when they are easier to rectify and before unacceptable behaviour has become entrenched.

If employees raise issues which are ignored this will undermine your policies and training.

Complaints are dealt with and appropriate action taken

There are a number of reasons that where complaints are made they are dealt with badly or not at all.

At best, untrained managers can find issues difficult and embarrassing to address so simply ignore issues.  At worst, reasons include fear that there is a historic pattern of unacceptable behaviour within an organisation which has been tolerated and the employer is genuinely concerned that addressing a complaint will “open a tin of worms” or the perpetrator is a senior “key” employees or top sales person who the employer feels is too valuable to lose.

Train managers so they have the confidence to deal with issues.

Many organisations now are very aware that a discrimination claim is not limited to the costs of dealing with the claim itself. Reputational damage is a key consideration. Many tender documents now ask for details of claims raised and can be the reason for losing valuable work.  The loss of employees expensive and a key concern is if employees find the work place unpleasant in the days of Glass Door and similar sites potential recruits may be influenced.  It is not just the victims of harassment who leave, those who witness it also often vote with their feet.

If the senior management team is seen as unsupportive of policies to prevent harassment then this cascades to other managers and issues will not be addressed.

The key message would be – create a culture where harassment is not accepted. Deal with issues early and deal with them seriously.

Disclaimer

This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

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