Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of, violating a person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Examples include sexual jokes, unwelcome touching, or sending/displaying sexual content.
Employers have a positive obligation to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the workplace by and against employees. This duty extends to work-related events and means that employers can be vicariously liable if one of their employees harasses another employee if it took place “in the course of their employment”. Employers may, however, have a defence if they can show they took reasonable steps to prevent such conduct by their employee.
Somewhat surprisingly, following a change in the law a few years ago, there is no similar duty on employers to prevent their employees from being harassed by third parties an issue that can be pertinent in the hospitality sector, although employees may still have some limited protection. However, this may change as there has been a renewed call for the reintroduction of the repealed provision contained in the Equality Act 2010 (which rendered employers liable, in certain circumstances, for the harassment of their employees by third parties) in the wake of the ill-fated Presidents Club dinner and generally.
Here are five ways to prevent and deal with sexual harassment in the workplace:
1 Adopt clear policies regarding sexual harassment
These should include guidelines as to how complaints can be made, how investigations will be handled and what disciplinary measures will be considered.
2 Ensure that all employees have been fully and properly trained on appropriate behaviour at work
In addition, provide specific training to supervisors and managers on how to deal with complaints.
3 Keep accurate, updated records
When investigating a complaint keep accurate and detailed records of interviews and collate any relevant documentation that may be evidence of the harassment.
4 Take a complaint seriously
You should ensure that any complaints are treated with sensitivity, are taken seriously and are investigated thoroughly.
5 Maintain a dialogue
Ensure that if a complaint is lodged, communication is maintained on a regular basis with the harassed employee to ensure they don’t experience retaliation or further harassment, potentially from other work colleagues.
Alexandra Bonner is a Partner in the employment team at London law firm Goodman Derrick LLP