How to Stamp Out Sexual Misconduct at Work for Good

The Commission accused employers of silencing victims to protect their own reputations and called for urgent action to overturn ‘corrosive working cultures’. Read on to understand what your legal duties are to prevent sexual harassment, which prevention measures are most effective, how to investigate any incidents that do arise and what legal changes the Commission is recommending to stop employers sweeping harassment under the carpet.

Understand Your Liabilities
The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of violating someone else’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. You have a farreaching duty to prevent harassment and can be held liable for:

  • Behaviour not intended to intend to cause offence.
  • Conduct that the person being harassed did not tell the perpetrator was unwanted.
  • A one-off act of sexual harassment.
  • Harassment that is verbal (including ‘banter’), not just physical.
  • Behaviour that is not directed at anyone (e.g. viewing pornography).
  • Harassment committed by your employees unless you can show you took all ‘reasonable’ steps to prevent it.
  • Harassment by third parties such as customers unless you can show you took all ‘reasonably practical’ steps to prevent it.
  • Harassment that happens outside the workplace (e.g. at a conference or a client’s premises).
  • Victimising someone because they complain about harassment or reject the perpetrator’s advances (e.g. if a manager fails to promote a junior employee).

A tribunal will consider whether it was reasonable for the conduct to have the effect that the complainant alleged (to protect the organisation against a hypersensitive individual). Compensation for harassment or victimisation is uncapped.

10 Tips to Prevent Harassment
So what prevention measures will a tribunal consider were reasonable? Employees must feel able to speak up and that no harasser is ‘untouchable’. Work through the checklist below to ensure you have a consistent, open and effective approach to tackling harassment.

Sexual Harassment Prevention Checklist



Put in place a dignity-at-work or standalone sexual harassment policy which sets out examples of unacceptable behaviour, informal and formal ways to report concerns and timescales for dealing with a complaint. Make clear you will deal with all complaints seriously and discreetly and there will be no reprisals for making a complaint in good faith.
2.      Make everyone aware of your policy: include a link on your website and put a copy in your employee handbook.
3.      Make clear in induction and regular refresher training what standards of behaviour you expect, what disciplinary action harassers will face and how staff can report issues. Encourage staff to challenge inappropriate behaviour and emphasise they will not be seen as trouble makers for reporting it.
4.      Ensure senior managers attend training sessions with staff to show they take the subject seriously and are not immune from disciplinary action if they misbehave.
5.      Hold additional training for managers in how to respond to complaints and hold sensitive conversations. Acas offers free online learning modules on bullying and harassment and conflict resolution.
6.      Make managers aware of the damage harassment can have on the organisation (such as tribunal claims, adverse publicity, poor retention and reduced morale and productivity).
7.      Encourage managers to discuss employees’ welfare in appraisal meetings, to help to catch problems before they escalate.
8.      Consider training a dedicated staff member (such as an HR Officer) to deal with complaints. This will allow witnesses and complainants to sidestep unsupportive managers – or a manager who is the harasser.
9.      Act promptly and appropriately on any harassment to send a clear message that you won’t tolerate such behaviour. Don’t pay off, silence or blame the victim, don’t tell them to put up with the behaviour and don’t dismiss or demote them.
10.    If senior personnel fall short of the standards required, treat them like any other employee. By its nature, sexual harassment often involves people abusing a position of power over junior staff, so investigate all allegations consistently and objectively.

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