Sexual Harassment: Do Your Staff Understand the Implications?

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has published a report ‘Turning the tables: ending sexual harassment at work’, which makes various recommendations for legislative changes to protect the victims of sexual harassment. The report includes details of victims’ experiences, what employers have told the EHRC and its recommendations.

The EHRC found that the most common perpetrator of harassment was a senior colleague. However, just under a quarter reported being harassed by customers, clients or service users. A common theme in responses was the existence of a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim. Many individuals believed that senior colleagues, due to their position of influence within organisations, were not challenged by HR departments or other colleagues.

The EHRC makes a number of recommendations, including introducing a mandatory legal duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent workplace sexual harassment enforceable by the EHRC, a statutory code of practice, targeted sexual harassment training for managers and publication of employers’ sexual harassment policies online. The EHRC has also called for legislation to ban non-disclosure agreements which purport to prevent disclosure of future acts of harassment, discrimination or victimisation.

You should bear in mind that existing sex discrimination provisions in the Equality Act 2010 are likely to be robustly enforced in the light of recent media reports and focus on sexual harassment in the workplace. Now is the time to be ensuring that your processes and procedures are up to date and that your staff fully understand the implications of sexual harassment.

As an employer, you should establish a zero tolerance environment and ensure that your staff are fully educated as to what may constitute an act of sexual harassment and victimisation. Such acts and ‘turning a blind eye’ should be subject to the disciplinary process. You should remember that as an employer you may be vicariously liable for the acts of an employee and that damages are unlimited for a successful discrimination claim.

5 Tips for a Sexual Harassment Policy

  1. Take action when an individual reports an incident. Many respondents to the EHRC survey stated that when they complained, their complaints were ignored. It is crucial that all complaints are properly investigated.
  2. Train staff. Individuals need to understand what is ‘cheeky banter’ to them may be offensive to an individual. Line managers must clearly understand their duties to treat allegations seriously.
  3. Spell out the consequences. Staff need to understand that acts of harassment will be subject to disciplinary action.
  4. Delegate responsibility for implementation of the policy to a senior HR representative.
  5. Carry out regular staff surveys to evaluate the effectiveness of your harassment policy.