Sexual harassment or assault in the Workplace

Sexual harassment or assault in the Workplace

Following the allegations about Russell Brand this weekend, we are seeing a lot of speculation about workplace harassment and sexual assault. Much of it is incorrect. So, we will spend a few paragraphs dispelling the myths.

First of all, as a rule, sexual relationships between colleagues may be unwise, foolish, misguided or plain foolhardy, but they are not illegal.  The employer has the right to make such relationships at work a breach of policy, and can even prohibit relationships in situations where one person has greater power or authority over another even if it only occurs outside the workplace.

Wise to be clear and consistent on sexual language, banter and behaviour in the workplace

Many problems that we see based on sexual harassment are due to a lack of clear understanding as to standards of behaviour. This can be for a number of reasons. First and foremost is a lack of policy on the point.

Where there is a policy, the employer strengthens their position and their workplace if everyone signs to say that they have read it.  Even better, role out Equality and Diversity training. Again, ensure that all attend.

A common weakness in the employer’s arsenal against sexual harassment is where behaviour is tolerated which falls below standards which might be viewed as counsel of perfection. The fact is that if an employer has a policy to protect against sexual harassment, but then allows managers, staff or owners to engage in sexualised banter for example, then the protection that was afforded is gone.  That is the protection that was given to the company from claims of harassment, and more importantly the protection given to staff from such harassment.

Only last week this firm has seen one employer’s ability to dismiss an employee dissolve, because the owners of the business engaged in behaviour just as reprehensible as the accused staff member. In such circumstances, how can anyone expect a troubled employee to bring their concerns to their employer.

Wise to have a clear, confidential and accessible means of reporting concerns

All of the protections in the world won’t help against sexual harassment unless there is a confidential means of reporting concerns which staff feel is safe.  We see some employers designate a person for this purpose, but better still some use a confidential email address.

Employers should be careful about the weight they put onto anonymous complaints and in fact such complaints can be very problematic.  For this reason, a secure reporting method is essential.

Allegations must be taken seriously

Treat all allegations of harassment seriously. Each person’s threshold for feeling harassed is different. The law will judge your response to allegations according to the complaint taken at face value, at least initially.

People may sometimes raise less serious issues in the first instance, just to gauge the response to their concerns. Listen, and explore with the complainant how they would like to proceed.

Power or positions of authority must not be misused

Remember the lessons from allegations against people like Russell Brand. It is sometimes true that relationship events may not be assault or harassment between two consenting adults, but where one is in a position of power over the other, consent cannot be taken for granted.

If a person tells you that they did not consent, then that must be taken at face value even if the evidence suggests otherwise (in cases of unequal power in the relationship).

Surprisingly, those accused must be protected too

It can sometimes be the case that complaints are not as they seem. Those accused must also be protected.  An accusation of assault, or even harassment, can ruin someone’s career. Therefore, take great care to get to the bottom of things before taking any action.

From an employer’s perspective

Putting aside for a moment the most important consideration, being the safety of those we employ, it is in the interests of any business to prevent harassment in the first place, or tackle these issues at the outset if they are not prevented.  Employers often do not realise that it is not legally possible to pay an employee off to the extent that prevents them going to the police afterwards.  As the BBC might tell you, such reports are bad for the reputation of any undertaking.  No matter how much an employee is paid in a settlement, it is unlawful for that settlement to attempt to prevent them from making further reports.

If you need help dealing with harassment at work, or the steps to take to prevent it, please contact us.

Fixed month retainer -Why not have an in-house lawyer for your business for as little as £100 per month?

Get in touch