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Sexual harassment in the workplace – what every employer should know

Sexual harassment scandals have been breaking in recent months like waves on a beach.

From the casting couch syndrome in the entertainment industry to sleaze allegations against MPs, allegations have flowed. Victims continue to speak out in the media, often defying 'gagging clauses' in contracts.

These stories also mirror the workplace claims that find their way into the Employment Tribunal every day. Sexual harassment is neither new nor uncommon: it's simply in the news.

Seven things employers should be aware of when it comes to sexual harassment

  1. The meaning of the term. Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination, defined in the Equality Act 2010. It occurs where a person engages in 'conduct of sexual nature' that has the purpose or effect 'of either violating the other person's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment' for them;
  2. The range of conduct covered by the legislation. It is wide and can be any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It can include not only unwelcome sexual advances and touching but also sexual jokes, pornographic photographs and emails;
  3. Understanding that sexual harassment in the workplace is not about sex. It's about power and the abuse of power. Sexual harassment stories have a common thread - a prominent man harassing or abusing a woman and then intimidating her or buying her silence. Workplaces are often hierarchies where one person wields power over another;
  4. Appreciating context is important. One person's idea of fun can be another's nightmare. Take the example of person A putting a hand on person B's knee during a meeting at work. If A is the boss and B is a very junior member of staff, then A's conduct is likely to be intimidating for B. If, however, A is the junior and B is the boss, then the risk of A being intimidated is much less. The difference is that only the boss can reject unwelcome sexual conduct without worrying about career prospects being damaged;
  5. Having good policies in a staff handbook are essential. These should deal with dignity at work, making it clear what behaviour is not acceptable. They should also make clear the procedure for employees to complain about sexual harassment in the workplace;
  6. Ensuring sexual harassment allegations are taken seriously and always investigated. The form of the investigation needs careful thought. The thorny question of evidence - especially what use an employer makes of the evidence - can be tricky. It's worth taking legal advice before making a decision;
  7. Good employers nurture a culture of equality. This might include ensuring equal pay and promotion for women. Sexual harassment is less likely to happen where the workplace is not the battlefield of the sexes.

For help and guidance about what employers should do to manage risk and improve staffing practice please contact Wards Solicitors' Employment Law Consultant, Julia Beasley.