How to Combat Sexual Harassment in The Workplace

Chris Cook, head of SA Law’s employment department, advises business owners on how to deal with a sexual harassment complaint

How to Combat Sexual Harassment in The Workplace

Harassment of a sexual nature is one of the most common forms of harassment and is specifically outlawed by the Equality Act 2010. Yet, despite increasing awareness of the problems it can cause in the workplace, sexual harassment still needs to be addressed as part of an ongoing dialogue between employers and staff.

It is therefore essential for every business to consider ways they should plan to prevent and resolve any potential issues. Employees must know that there is a route they can take if they experience sexual harassment in the workplace, and that their complaint will be dealt with seriously and have no adverse effect on their future at the company.

Suffering in silence

Recent research from the Trades Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism Project has concluded that over half of women have suffered from sexual harassment in the workplace, yet only one out of five do not disclose it to their employer.

Victims fear that it will affect their relationships at work and be detrimental to their career prospects. Other women stated that they were too embarrassed to discuss it or thought they wouldn’t be taken seriously. A more worrying reason for keeping quiet was that those on the receiving end accepted it as part and parcel of the business and put it down to the power dynamics of working life.

What should employers do?

Employers are responsible for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace and are liable for any harassment suffered by their employees. It is therefore vital that employers take action when complaints are made in order to uphold the duty of care they owe towards their workforce.

Policy and procedure

The first thing that all businesses should do is make sure that they have a policy dealing specifically with sexual harassment. It should state that the company will not tolerate sexual harassment or retaliation against anyone who complains about sexual harassment.

It is important to clearly define sexual harassment so that employees understand the exact behaviours that may lead to investigation and disciplinary action. The policy should outline the procedure for how employees can make a complaint and how the company will deal with it.

Employees should know to whom they can turn if they are experiencing sexual harassment and that the procedure followed will have a provision for safety and confidentiality. The policy should also clearly set out that perpetrators will be subject to investigation and punished accordingly.

Monitor your workplace

It is important to maintain a workplace culture whereby employees are encouraged to raise a complaint if they are suffering from sexual harassment at work. A culture where employees are consulted and problems discussed is less likely to deter victims from coming forward than one where there is an authoritarian management style whereby victims feel they will not be listened to.

Monitoring your workplace, keeping the lines of communication open and asking employees for their input will ensure that employees feel that their role is vital to the company and that they matter. This sort of culture will encourage employees to approach management about sexual harassment issues and make them feel that they will be listened to and taken seriously.

Training

Training is a valuable way to increase employee’s awareness of the damage sexual harassment can do. Training sessions should teach employees what sexual harassment is and highlight that employees have the right to a workplace which is free from sexual harassment.

It is important to remind employees of the company’s procedure on dealing with sexual harassment so they are encouraged to use it. It is vital to conduct separate training sessions for managers and supervisors.

They need to be educated on the correct way to deal with complaints and made aware that employees will be less reluctant to come forward if they feel supported and confident when approaching management.

How should employers respond to complaints?

Investigate

Investigate the complaint promptly and take it seriously. Employees will not make serious accusations unless they feel seriously aggrieved. The investigation must be seen to be objective, independent and thorough.

Informal discussion

In some cases it may be possible to rectify matters informally. Behaviour that is considered sexual harassment by one person may not by another. It is crucial for employers to give examples of what is unacceptable behaviour in their business and an informal discussion can lead to an agreement that such behaviour will cease.

Counselling

Counselling can have a significant impact when complaints are made in relation to sexual harassment.  It can provide a confidential avenue for employees to obtain support from trained professionals.

Disciplinary procedures

As with any disciplinary problem, it is important to follow a fair procedure both for the victim and the perpetrator. Neither party should be made to feel uncomfortable and it is vital that things are kept confidential, to the greatest extent possible, and approached in a way that will cause as little disruption to working relationships as possible.

The law is clear; sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and is unlawful, it should therefore not go unnoticed or unpunished. Employers have a duty of care to all employees and it is vital to establish a clear zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workplace and promote a safe, healthy and fair environment in which people can work.


Chris Cook is a partner and head of employment at SA Law

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