Free article: Sexual harassment in the workplace

Published: Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Pam Loch provides guidance on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Summary

  • Sexual harassment is defined in legislation as: behaviour or conduct of a sexual nature that is meant to, or has the effect of, either violating another’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or sexually offensive environment.
  • Employers can be liable for sexual harassment and must be up to speed and confident in handling complaints or concerns from employees.
  • Payouts for successful employment tribunal claims can be damaging not only to an organisation’s reputation but also financially.
  • Specific training can help to improve managers’ ability to handle any complaints or issues proactively.
  • Employers should deal with discriminatory behaviour through established disciplinary procedures to help avoid matters escalating.

A recent Trades Union Congress (TUC) survey has received widespread media coverage after 52% of the 1,500 women questioned said that they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. 79% also said that they did not tell their employer about it, with 24% feeling that they would not be taken seriously if they did so.

Many of us assume that sexual harassment at work has been left in the past. However, these findings challenge this and present employers with concerns about how to deal with it. As employers can be vicariously liable for sexual harassment, they must be up to speed and confident in handling complaints or concerns from employees. Payouts for successful employment tribunal claims can be damaging, not only to an organisation’s reputation but also financially.

BT lost a claim of sexual harassment, sex discrimination and unfair dismissal involving a former call centre worker in 2011. It was forced to pay out £290,000 in compensation.

An employment tribunal awarded £19,500 for injury to feelings to a zero hours worker who was subjected to gender harassment. In addition to the claimant being especially vulnerable due to her young age and fragile mental health, Britannia Hotels Ltd was penalised further for its inadequate dealing of the problem, as this magnified the effect of the harassment on the claimant.

An example of the impact this can have on smaller organisations is the case of Vinci Construction UK Ltd, which lost a claim in 2015 and was ordered to pay £14,000 for injury to feelings in respect of an employee who was forced out of their job because of sexual harassment by their employer.

Sexual harassment is defined in legislation as behaviour or conduct of a sexual nature which is intended to, or does, either violate another’s dignity or create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or sexually offensive environment. Employers can be found liable if harassment takes place at work as well as at social events. They can also be liable for harassment by third-party contractors or suppliers.

Bullying and harassment are not only unacceptable on moral and legal grounds but may, if unchecked or badly handled, create serious problems for an organisation, including:

  • poor morale and poor employee relations
  • loss of respect for managers and supervisors
  • poor performance
  • lost productivity
  • absence
  • resignations
  • damage to company reputation
  • tribunal and other court cases and payment of unlimited compensation.

It is in every employer’s interests to promote a safe, healthy and fair environment in which people can work.

Employers can take a number of steps to reduce the risk of successful discrimination claims being brought against them. Providing staff with handbooks that include policies on equal opportunities and harassment, and what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, ensures that all employees are aware of what is expected of them. Specific training can help to improve managers’ ability to handle any complaints or issues proactively. It can also help to defend and position employers in a tribunal. If staff are aware of the procedures for them to raise concerns, there is less likelihood of matters escalating irreparably. This also allows employers to deal with discriminatory behaviour through established disciplinary procedures.

Counselling can play a vital role in complaints about bullying and harassment, by providing a confidential avenue for an informal approach and the opportunity to resolve the complaint without the need for any further or formal action. Some organisations can train staff from within; others may contract with a specialist counselling service. Employee assistance programmes are counselling services provided and paid for by the employer and free to the employee. Counselling can be particularly useful where an investigation shows no cause for disciplinary action, or where doubt is cast on the validity of the complaint. Counselling may resolve the issue or help to support the person accused as well as the complainant.

An independent third person or mediator can sometimes help to resolve disciplinary or grievance issues. Mediation is a voluntary process where the mediator helps two (or more) people in a dispute to find a solution that they can both agree to. The mediator does not take sides or tell those in dispute what to do. Mediation is most likely to be successful if both parties understand what it involves and enter the process voluntarily. Mediation can be a good way of dealing with bullying, discrimination or harassment situations, depending on the nature of any allegations.

Employers must investigate complaints of harassment appropriately, and take steps to remedy the situation. Otherwise they risk having to pay increased compensation for injury to feelings.

About the author

Pam LochPam Loch, Managing Partner of niche employment law practice, Loch Employment Law and Managing Director of Loch Associates Group incorporating HR Advise Me, Loch Mediation and Loch Health. For more information on Loch Employment Law please visit www.lochlaw.co.uk 

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