Chris Randall: Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace

The recent sexual harassment and assault scandal has quickly found its way from Hollywood to our own parliament in a matter of weeks. Many people are now opening up to questioning whether they too have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace.

A study by the TUC: “Sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016” found that:

  • More than half (52%) of all women polled have experienced
    some form of sexual harassment
  • 32% of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a
    sexual nature
  • Nearly one quarter of women have experienced unwanted touching (such
    as a hand on the knee or lower back)
  • More than one in ten women reported experiencing unwanted sexual
    touching or attempts to kiss them

What is sexual harassment?

The Equality Act of 2010 has this definition: “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 covers indecent or suggestive remarks, unwanted touching, requests or demands for sex, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic images, or sending emails of a sexual nature.

Many employers do not know that even a one-off act can amount to harassment.

Who is responsible?

An employer could be liable for any acts of sexual harassment by its employees if committed in the course of employment. An employer can also be held responsible for acts of sexual harassment that are committed by third parties, such as contractors or customers.

In many cases, the first time an employer will learn of an allegation of sexual harassment in the workplace, is after it has occurred. This may be triggered by the employee raising a grievance or taking a leave of sickness absence or even resigning from employment. At this stage the employment relationship begins to break down and could result in a costly tribunal claim. There is a defence to such a claim if the employer can demonstrate that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment.

How to reduce the risk

Provide staff with clear policies on equal opportunities and anti-harassment, setting out what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.

Provide training on equality and harassment. This will raise awareness and may help managers to recognise and address with sexual harassment at an early stage.

Deal with complaints of sexual harassment promptly and seriously.