Sadly sexual harassment is still alive and well in the workplace even in the 21st century, and the excuse of “just a bit of banter” is no longer acceptable and is a minefield for employers and employees alike.  What seems a harmful joke to one person can be perceived as intrusive and damaging to another and we need to understand our responsibility and act accordingly to protect and help overcome this behaviour.

Sexual harassment continues to feature regularly in the headlines, spurred on by the now familiar #MeToo movement, and reinforced by new campaigns such as Time’s Up (#TimesUpNow – a campaign aimed at ending gender inequality) and #ThisIsNotWorking (TUC’s campaign to tackle sexual harassment, following research it commissioned which found that 1 in 2 women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace).

What is sexual harassment?

The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as 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. Were you aware though that “unwanted conduct” could also include pranks, social media mimicry, even suggestive looks or leering?  All employers have a duty of care to protect their workers and will be legally liable for sexual harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it.

So what are reasonable steps?

Companies are advised to follow a series of steps and technical guidance which the EHRC (Equality and Human Right Commission) hope will eventually become statutory guidance enforceable by law. Chief Executive at EHRC Rebecca Hilsenrath has outlined in a letter to employers and industry groups just how executives must ensure that “employees come to work knowing they will be safe and protected from discrimination, victimisation and harassment of any kind”.  In the letter seven steps were advised that could be used as evidence in tribunals.

These are:

  1. Develop an effective anti-harassment policy
  2. Engage staff with regular one-to-ones and have an open door policy
  3. Assess and mitigate risks in the workplace
  4. Consider using a reporting system that allows workers to raise an issue anonymously or in name
  5. Train staff on what sexual harassment in the workplace looks like, what to do if workers experience it and how to handle complaints
  6. Act immediately when a harassment complaint is made
  7. Treat harassment by a third-party just as seriously as that by a colleague

Issue needs strengthening

With research showing that three-quarters of workers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, this real issue needs strengthening and clarifying and shows we need to do more.  A report from Trade Union Congress (TUC), shows that In 90% of cases, the perpetrator of the harassment was male, with nearly one in five women reporting that it was their line manager, or someone with direct authority over them.  With 79% of cases not reported, an easier way of communicating and reporting the incident is foremost in the EHRC’s guidelines.

In addition to the personal impact and mental health implications to individuals, sexual harassment at work can lead to under-performance of both individuals and teams as well as cause damage to the culture of an organisations, so your companies policy needs to be clear and concise even when employees are out of the office possibly in an after work drinks situation.  Your obligation to protect and ensure safety and care for your female and male employees remains the same.

For advice and help on the above please contact our specialist advisors at Centric HR here.