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Sexual harassment at work

Whilst the awful allegations of sexual harassment have recently focussed on the high profile worlds of Hollywood, the media and politics, sexual harassment does of course happen in every industry and in every walk of life. Iain Burke takes a look at sexual harassment in the workplace, with important advice about what you should be doing as an employer.

Quite shockingly, TUC research suggests that more than half of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. Of course, bullying and harassment of any kind should not be tolerated in the workplace and the Equality Act 2010 uses a single definition of harassment to cover the relevant protected characteristics as:

“unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, 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”.

But is sexual harassment any different? Harassment of a sexual nature is actually one of the most common forms of harassment and is specifically outlawed by the Equality Act 2010 as harassment that is related to relevant protected characteristics. It is definitely in the interests of your business to take steps that make it very clear what sort of behaviour would be considered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is where the unwanted behaviour is of a sexual nature. This can include: • Sexual comments or jokes. • Physical conduct, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching, sexual assault. • Displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature. • Sending emails with a sexual content.

The effect of this unwanted behaviour can: • Violate a person’s dignity. • Makes them feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated.

• Create a hostile or offensive environment.

And an individual does not need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.

What should employers do straight away? All employers must have a robust grievance process in place, so that if an employee is being sexually harassed by someone that they work with, then the procedures are in place for them to report it to you and that you have the processes to deal with it properly and quickly. If not, the likelihood is that your employee will make a claim at an employment tribunal that you could not even attempt to solve the problem because you did not have the correct grievance procedures in place.

Most people will agree on extreme cases of harassment but it is sometimes the ‘grey’ areas that cause most problems. It is good practice for employers to give examples of what is unacceptable behaviour in their organisation including touching, standing too close and the display of offensive materials. But sexual harassment is not necessarily face to face, it may occur through written communications, visual images (for example pictures of a sexual nature or embarrassing photographs of colleagues), by email and phone.

Education is key Of course, it is vital to have the correct policies and procedures in place, but it is true to say that education is going to be the single most important step that we can take to crack down on sexual harassment, and all employers should work hard to deliver this.

Large employers in particular should offer specific training on sexual harassment and all staff should certainly be aware of inappropriate behaviour looks like and know that you have a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment. Men must know that they can’t be allowed to use the “just banter” defence.

Employees should also know the steps that they can take if they are a victim of sexual harassment or if they witness it happening to someone else. And managers and HR staff should have a very clear understanding of how to deal with allegations of harassment.

Conclusion Whilst the issue of sexual harassment is taking centre stage in the media at the moment, there is a long overdue shift in culture and attitudes taking place in society as a whole. And in the workplace, make no mistake that this isn’t something to be ignored or taken lightly, all employers must work hard to try to stop sexual harassment from happening in the first place but when it does, you must be able to offer employees all the protection that they need.

This is 2017, so let’s hope that this type of disgusting unwanted behaviour in the workplace can be banished to the history books once and for all.

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