Sexual harassment scandal should serve as warning to businesses

20th November 2017

Sexual harassment scandal should serve as warning to businesses

Allegations of sexual misconduct – in Hollywood and Parliament – have dominated the news agenda in recent weeks, as more and more victims find the courage to share their experiences. The behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and a dossier of British MPs and ministers has highlighted the dangers that follow when a culture of harassment is allowed to develop in the workplace. With the likelihood of further revelations in the coming months, the scandal should serve as a stark reminder to businesses and organisations to ensure they have clear policies in place to protect staff. 

Figures from a recent ComRes poll found that more than half of all British women and a fifth of all men had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their place of work or study. The research, commissioned by the BBC, showed that many of those who had suffered sexual harassment at work could not face the process of reporting an incident, with 63% of women and 79% of men opting against taking action. Harassment may come in many forms, but includes any unwelcome sexual advances, whether by touching, standing too close, asking for sexual favours, or displaying offensive materials.

Employees are protected in the workplace by the Equality Act 2010, which makes it unlawful for an employer to allow any job applicant or employee to be subject to any harassment – and that includes harassment related to sex or of a sexual nature.

Employment law specialist, Andrew West, said “Employees often choose not to report incidents because they’re embarrassed or ashamed, or worry they will not be believed. There are also fairly strict time limits, and the individual is likely to have to give evidence, on very personal and sensitive issues, in order to prove what happened, and how the conduct was ‘unwanted’. There are often circumstances where those being harassed may feel that trying to deal with the situation in a passive way is the safest course of action; often, though, the other party involved may then try and argue it was mutual. Similarly, employees who have been subjected to this kind of treatment will often question themselves as to whether they may be simply not believed, or that management may have completely different ideas of what is acceptable. What is clear is that the law has always maintained that what whilst someone might think that it’s acceptable to make racy jokes or engage in ‘banter’ or flirting, where someone else finds that offensive or humiliating, that can make the behaviour unlawful – and that’s regardless of motive. But the concerns about how a complaint of harassment might be dealt with commonly this will put an employee off making a formal complaint.”

Resources published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and conciliation service ACAS recommend that every business has a written policy, setting out how harassment at work is unlawful and making sure all staff understand that such behaviour will not be tolerated and may be treated as a disciplinary offence.

Having a policy that deals with harassment in the workplace is a first step that employers must take in an effort to assure employees that any concerns raised internally will be treated seriously. Examples of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour will help people understand the boundaries – and more so if you train your staff on the policies and what your business considers to be unacceptable behaviour. Training is all the more important if you have any concerns about a historic culture that needs to be changed within your organisation – particularly certain types of behaviour (for example, the ever present and ever dangerous “banter”) – together with guidance to staff on how to respond and deal with such behaviour. Then, most importantly, a clear process for what steps the organisation will take if anyone feels they have been subject to any form of harassment, including a safe environment for reporting and handling any complaints.

Mr West added: “However large or small the company, top of the agenda should be a focus on ensuring equality and diversity in the workplace. With research such as the BBC’s showing that it is usually a junior member of staff experiencing the harassment, management should lead the way in demonstrating that everyone, from the top down, has zero tolerance to inappropriate behaviour.

“Staff should be confident they can report any concerns, knowing they will be heard in a supportive, positive way.”

How can Gotelee help?

If your business or organisation would like expert advice on how to ensure a safe and secure workplace with clear policies and training for staff, get in touch by calling 01473 298126 or visiting us in any of our offices in Ipswich, Hadleigh, Felixstowe, Woodbridge and Melton.

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