How to deal with claims of sexual harassment

With all of the allegations made both here at home and across the pond in the USA you would think that no employer is capable of dealing with claims of sexual harassment, or you might think that these institutions were prime candidates for 'that sort of thing' to be happening within. Most people think that it couldn't possibly happen in their workplace. However, if we have learnt one thing from all the recent revelations it is that we cannot really judge who is and who isn't capable of activities that would fall on the borderline of what people consider acceptable behaviour. It's always best to understand how you might have to approach these issues, even if you consider that no-one who works for you is capable of this.

What is harassment?

Harassment is a form of discrimination. Harassment is described as "unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual". Sexual harassment is therefore related to one of the nine-protected characteristics under the Equality Act of 2010, which are: sex, race, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, gender re-assignment, religious belief, sexual orientation, disability and age.

How can harassment take place?

In today's environment the concept of harassment of any sort cannot be confined to the fact that it happens only on a face to face basis. You need to be aware that harassment, by its very nature, is often taking place off the radar. For example, harassment can take place over email, social media, chat groups and text messages, as well as face to face. If this is happening between two people who work together, even if it is taking place outside work, you have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment for your employees. If someone won't come into work because they are too afraid of the person harassing them this becomes an employer issue, difficult though it may be.

If an individual can present a basic case that harassment connected to one of these points had taken place the burden of proof transfers to the employer to show that it did not discriminate. It is therefore in the employer's best interest to be able to demonstrate to an external party what action was taken in relation to the allegation. The consequence for employers of poor practice is unlimited compensation for discrimination in a successful claim. But the hidden cost is likely to be in reputational damage amongst customers and suppliers.

So what should you do if you are told of suspected sexual harassment?

  • Take all allegations seriously. Even if you consider it trivial or unimportant, it is not your view that counts but the view of the person on the receiving end of the harassment.
  • Invesigate. For many people they don't want to do anything other than confide what has been happening. You do however have a responsibility to act once you have been told. You cannot appear to condone the actions or brush them under the carpet so a good investigation into the facts is always to be advised.
  • Act with discretion and confidentiality. This is a sensitive matter for all parties involved and could potentially be career ending for one of them. Try to keep an open mind and not rush to judgement before you have any evidence on which to base your findings.
  • Make a decision. Is the allegation founded? Should formal action be taken? This could be disciplinary or dismissal action. Make sure you understand what the corect process is to follow before taking any action.

Don't forget that the friendly HR team at CHaRM is always here to help you if you are faced with a harassment claim. We can also train your managers on how to identify where the line may be crossed between 'banter' and 'harassment' and stop it before it becomes dangerous. We have done this for many employers over the years.