Harassment in the workplace – what should employers do?
  • 9th Nov 2017
  • Article written by Louise Purcell
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The recent news stories about sexual harassment, such as the allegations made about the behaviour of some MPs in Westminster and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, have raised serious questions about the type of behaviour that goes on in the workplace. In this article we look at the topic of harassment and what policies employers should implement, as well as the procedures to best deal with any cases that may occur.

Sexual harassment has been discussed at length recently and can include such behaviour as touching, standing too close, asking for sexual favours and making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected. But harassment is not restricted to actions of a sexual nature. Indeed, harassment is defined under the Equality Act 2010 and refers to unwanted conduct in respect of a relevant protected characteristic (these are gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, age and disability), which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual. This may include behaviour such as ridiculing or demeaning someone or spreading malicious rumours, as well as the above mentioned unwanted sexual advances.

It is important that employers seek to curb any type of behaviour amounting to harassment within their organisations because, if left unchecked, problems can occur. Low morale, bad performance, poor productivity, resignations and reputational damage are serious concerns for all businesses, thus it is in every employer’s best interests to provide a safe, healthy and fair place in which staff can carry out work. So what can employers do?

Employers should look at establishing a workplace policy that contains a clear statement that harassment is unlawful and will not be condoned. Examples of unacceptable behaviour should be outlined and a statement made that such actions may be treated as a disciplinary offence. It is crucial that complainants are given confidentiality or they may be reluctant to come forward and investigation procedures should be explained clearly.

In responding to any complaints raised, employers should always take them seriously and investigate objectively and in good time. All the circumstances surrounding a claim should be scrutinised before a conclusion is reached. Depending on what has taken place, it may be that the matter can be rectified informally whereby a discussion can result in a greater understanding and assurances that the behaviour in question will not happen again. Counselling can also help in resolving complaints, particularly where investigation shows no need for disciplinary action.

However, there may be instances where informal resolution is inappropriate and the matter needs to be dealt with as a disciplinary issue in line with the employer’s formal disciplinary procedure. In these situations, an employer must follow a fair procedure in respect of the complainant and the accused. In terms of penalties, if the case is proven, written warnings, suspension, transfer or dismissal may be appropriate.

Everyone deserves the right to be respected and treated with dignity whilst at work. Employers have a responsibility to ensure this right is protected and should implement policies to make sure this remains the case, whilst taking any allegations that are made seriously.

We can help you establish and manage your procedures to ensure that you comply with the law. Please contact a member of our employment team for further information.