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Sexual Harassment in your work place – still just a bit of banter?

August 18, 2016
Sexual Harassment in your work place – still just a bit of banter?

The recent TUC report on sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016 makes for disturbing reading.
The modern workplace is often criticised as ‘political correctness gone mad’. It is therefore surprising that one of the key findings of the TUC report (which can be found here) is that more than half of all women polled experienced some form of sexual harassment in the work place, with nearly one quarter experiencing unwanted touching (such as a hand on the knee or lower back) and one fifth of women experiencing unwanted sexual advances.

As an employer or HR specialist incidents of sexual harassment, whilst not uncommon, may not be as prevalent in your work place as the report suggests … or so you thought. Alarmingly, the report finds that four out of five women did not report incidents of sexual harassment to their employer with ‘sexual harassment remaining as widespread a problem as ever’.

Sexual harassment is defined by the Equality Act, 2010, 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. Obvious examples include indecent or suggestive remarks, questions, jokes or suggestions about a colleague’s sex life, display of pornography in the workplace, unwelcome and inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing.

Whilst overt displays of inappropriate material such as calendars and posters on office walls are generally considered unacceptable, the privacy and ease of email and social media has introduced new challenges in the fight against sexual harassment.

The TUC report is appropriately named: ‘Still just a bit of a banter?’ raising the age old problem of what banter is acceptable in the work place. Whilst most allegations of sexual harassment are regarded by the perpetrator as harmless fun and the inability of the victim to take a joke, the report highlights the serious effects of harassment on the victim: ranging from feelings of embarrassment, shame, avoidance of certain work situations, loss of confidence at work, negative impact on physical and mental health.

Most employers strive for a work place with mutual respect for employees. Whilst the impact of sexual harassment is significant for the victim it can be equally as damaging for employers causing disruption to productivity, staff retention issues and costly employment tribunal claims. Whilst the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees has significantly reduced the number of claims, it is a sobering statistic that the highest award for a claim of sex discrimination in 2014/2015 was £557,039.00, with the average compensation figure being £13,500.00.

Employers are only too aware that sexual harassment is one of many forms of discrimination to be tackled in the workplace with harassment and discrimination on the grounds of race, sexual orientation, religion, political belief, age and disability being equally or more common.

The TUC report is a stark reminder that harassment and discrimination is alive and well in the workplace. The report suggests basic but essential steps employers should take to protect both employees and their business:

1. Implementation and Enforcement of policies

Employers should have robust policies in place to reflect a zero tolerance approach to harassment and discrimination: to include equal opportunities social media and grievance procedures.
It is not sufficient to simply have policies – they need to be enforced. All employees should be made aware of these policies, reporting procedures and their rights and responsibilities.

2. Training: HR Staff and Management

HR and all levels of management should receive training on what constitutes harassment, stalking and online harassment. This should include how to respond to complaints of harassment and discrimination.

3. Equal Opportunities Training for ALL employees

It is a fact that harassment and discrimination happens at work irrespective of policies.
As an employer a level of protection can be obtained, ‘the statutory defence,’ if all employees receive equal opportunities training. This enables employers to defend claims of harassment and discrimination on the basis that as an organisation the employer has done all that is feasibly possible to ensure the discrimination/harassment did not take place. Importantly, this has the effect of shifting liability from the employer to the employee.
To ensure your business is doing all it can to protect itself and its employees, contact us to arrange a review of your policies. We can also visit your business to provide equal opportunities training to HR staff and management and importantly all employees.
To get in touch about this or any other employment issue contact us at contact@integralegal.co.uk or 0115 987 6790 or 0203 478 1260

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