Following the scandal of sexual harassment allegations involving movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, many other victims of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace have come forward to reveal their own stories of abuse.
Having dispelled some of the taboos of speaking out about the issue, many more allegations may surface in the weeks and months ahead. However, some employers may be left wondering what their legal duties are and how they should act, in the event that they receive allegations of workplace sexual misconduct.
Here, Lara Murray, an Associate Solicitor and workplace law expert, explains the legal issues which all employers need to be fully up to speed with:
What constitutes sexual harassment?
According to the Equality Act of 2010 sexual harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”
This includes indecent or suggestive comments, unwanted touching, requests or demands for sex and the sharing of pornography in the workplace.
How common is sexual harassment in the workplace?
According to the TUC and Everyday Sexism, 52 per cent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, nearly 25 per cent had been touched without invitation and around 20 percent had experienced an inappropriate sexual advance.
Despite this, around 20 per cent of women fail to report sexual harassment in the workplace. Of those who reported the problem to their employer, 80 per cent claimed nothing changed, whilst 16 per cent said the situation worsened after reporting it.
What steps should you take to deal with allegations involving members of your workforce?
First and foremost, it’s critical that you have in place rules which everyone understands, along with clear details regarding disciplinary action which will be taken, in the event that someone crosses the line.
Some employees may not understand, for example, that workplace ‘banter’ can quickly descend into sexual harassment so it is important to explain clearly what is and is not acceptable in the workplace, for the avoidance of any doubt.
It is also important to explain the process for making an allegation. If your company is too small to have a formal HR department, you should detail how and to whom a complaint can be raised.
Most importantly, an immediate and thorough investigation must be carried out into allegations and as such, there needs to be a robust investigation process in place and trained managers to implement it.
Adopting these measures will help to ensure that you create a safe workplace environment and avoid any issues getting out of hand, which might potentially lead to legal action or an Employment Tribunal.
For help and advice on all aspects of workplace law including drafting compliant employee handbooks and guidance on disciplinary procedures, please contact us.