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Handling sexual harassment claims in the workplace

Amanda Boyd, professional support employment lawyer at LHS Solicitors, says all businesses should approach sexual harassment claims with a degree of sensitivity and diplomacy.
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For SME owners, dealing with sexual harassment claims may be daunting. Often they are unsure who to turn to for advice – and the consequences of failing to deal with complaints appropriately can be significant.

Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”) consolidated all UK equality laws under one piece of legislation. Included in the Act are the laws previously enshrined in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, some of which promoted non-discriminatory practices in the workplace. But after over 40 years of protective legislation intending to create “a level playing field,” instances of sexual harassment is still prevalent.

It constitutes any unwelcome sexual behaviour. This can take a variety of forms; not necessarily just physical but verbal too. What may be considered a joke to one employee can be very offensive to another, so it’s vital that all sexual harassment claims be taken seriously. Consequently, employers should ensure that sexualised jokes and behaviours are not “normalised” and accepted as banter.

Research conducted by the TUC entitled, “Still just a bit of banter”, found that 32 per cent of female employees in the UK had experienced sexual harassment at work. Many previously may have chosen not to pursue complaints of harassment because of fees that had to be paid to seek external remedies. With the abolishment of Employment Tribunal fees though, the risk of having to defend a complaint of sexual harassment is a real possibility.

If someone raised a complaint with an Employment Tribunal, indicating that no steps were taken to stipulate that the behaviour complained of was unacceptable, it would leave the business “vicariously liable” for the acts of the employee perpetrating the discriminatory behaviour.

In view of this, employers aware they have a culture of conversations loaded with sexual innuendo or “overtly familiar” unwanted embracing, need to take urgent steps to alter things.

Educating staff on acceptable interactions both verbally and physically is a good starting point. This can be reinforced by putting in place processes and policies to ensure sexual harassment claims are dealt with appropriately. Acting quickly and sensitively can help resolve situations internally, rather than later at an Employment Tribunal.

Sexual harassment policy

While it is extremely difficult to remove the risk of receiving sexual harassment claims, there are ways to mitigate the risk of claims arising from unwanted conduct. Introducing a written policy outlining a zero-tolerance attitude is key. This will demonstrate to employees that the business is taking a pro-active approach in preserving their dignity and providing them with a safe environment.

The policy should outline what sexual harassment is and what the business will do should a complaint arise. It should outline what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, which should be communicated to employees at all levels. Clearly set out what will happen if the rules are breached.

Employees should be left in no doubt that sexual harassment claims will be fully investigated. Business owners should also ensure employees understand the steps to take if they wish to report a case.

Investigate all claims

No matter what the claim is, it must always be taken seriously. The complainant should be given the choice of whether they wish to deal with the matter informally or formally.

It’s important to investigate every claim and determine what action is needed on a case by case basis. If a business is unable to resolve complaints internally, there is always a risk that an employee may seek redress at an Employment Tribunal.

Demonstrating that you enforced a zero-tolerance policy, fully investigated a complaint and tried to resolve the issue, will help when defending any sexual harassment complaint. Employers receiving a complaint must always consider it carefully and be sure not to pass judgment quickly. Most importantly, they must never minimise the issue or “brush it under the carpet”.

If mishandled, a company can be left vulnerable to new complaints, potentially relating to victimisation. These can be raised against the business, the individual who has failed to address the situation appropriately or at both.

If you’re in any doubt about how to handle an issue raised by an employee, always seek legal advice. By being prepared and documenting every action taken, business owners can reduce the risk of a claim ending up at a costly Employment Tribunal.

Amanda Boyd is a professional support employment lawyer at LHS Solicitors

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