15th January 2018

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Last year we saw a raft of high profile sexual harassment allegations being made against celebrities and politicians alike. More recently the EHRC has highlighted that they will be getting involved as far as their powers allow to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, with recent letters sent to several high profile organisations such as Asda, the BBC and some City law firms.

With the removal tribunal fees and the increase in media attention, it will be interesting to see whether the claims in the tribunal increase and whether employers find themselves having to deal with more allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace.

So what is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010 is defined as:

“Unwanted contact related to sex or of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the individual’s dignity or which creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”.

Examples of sexual harassment, as included in ACAS’ new advice, include:

  • Written or verbal comments of a sexual nature, such as remarks about a colleague’s appearance, questions about their sex life or offensive jokes
  • Displaying pornographic or explicit images
  • Sending or forwarding emails that contain content of a sexual nature
  • Unwanted physical contact and touching
  • Sexual assault

From the above it is clear that “banter” in the work place can be included.  With some very serious offences there is also criminal liability.  For example, this includes stalking or sexual assault.

For more discussion on sexual harassment and the potential awards for injury to feelings, see our previous post here.

Employers are potentially liable for the acts of their employees and to help avoid such liability employers should take all reasonable steps to try and prevent harassment from occurring.

This could include :-

  • Drafting policies, such as equal opportunities policies and harassment and bullying policies
  • Ensure these policies are communicated and enforced throughout the workforce and organisation
  • Ensure managers and supervisors are trained in equal opportunities and harassment
  • Ensure there is a process where complaints will be dealt with, perhaps something separate to the existing grievance procedures

Some workplaces and cultures may be more prone to sexual harassment, but it would be no excuse that the sexual harassment was simply banter or ‘normal’ on the shop floor.

When investigating allegations of sexual harassment there is not only the victim to think about, but also the perpetrator who may be found innocent. Confidentiality is key when investigating allegations of sexual harassment as if the alleged perpetrator is found to be innocent he or she may need to return to work in the business.

Employers also want to ensure that they do not automatically suspend someone without thinking through whether that is proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances.  A suspension that is deemed to be a ‘knee jerk reaction’ can sometimes lead to claims of constructive unfair dismissal.

When dealing with an allegation of sexual harassment it is important to investigate and deal with any investigation fairly ensuring that both sides of the story are listened to.  Employers should have in place disciplinary procedure to deal with such allegations and the normal principles of fairness and reasonableness apply just like any other issue of potential misconduct.

If you are concerned about sexual harassment in the workplace, either as an employee or an employer, we will be able to help. We can advise you and provide training for staff and managers. Please do contact us on 01730 268211 or at .