How should employers respond to sexual harassment complaints?
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers may be held vicariously liable for acts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation carried out by employees in the course of their employment, unless you can demonstrate that you took all reasonable steps to prevent it occurring. It’s therefore imperative to take a firm stance against any behaviour that oversteps the mark, and that you understand how to prevent and respond to any such incidences in your workplace.
If you’re approached with an allegation of sexual harassment, you should:
1. Treat it seriously. If an employee divulges sexual harassment, you have a legal and ethical duty to investigate. You must not base your response or subsequent actions on whether you believe the employee’s allegations; you must take him or her at their word.
2. Speak to the complainant. Get their account and keep minutes of the conversation.
3. Address the matter in line with your internal grievance procedure. This is a fact-finding exercise to explore who witnessed the incident, get more information on what happened and provide recorded evidence of your investigation. This is vital as it will ensure that you are seen to be taking the matter seriously.
4. Provide an outcome to the grievance. If the complaint is dismissed, you must give the complainant the opportunity to appeal. If upheld, the next step will be to follow your organisation’s disciplinary procedure.
The way in which you resolve an issue will depend on the facts of the case, but options include an informal discussion, counselling, mediation or formal disciplinary procedures. Serious cases may result in dismissal for gross misconduct.
3 ways to prevent workplace harassment
• Develop and promote a working environment where employees are encouraged to report any cases of sexual misconduct. Employees may be reluctant to come forward for many reasons, so it’s important that they trust that their concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with in a sensitive and confidential manner.
• Remind employees that it’s their responsibility to ensure their behaviour does not cause offence and that they must stop immediately if they are told that their actions are unwanted or offensive. You should also make employees aware that all allegations will be thoroughly investigated, and disciplinary action taken when required.
• Reinforce your stance through documented policies and procedures. It’s a good idea to create a sexual harassment policy detailing what your standards and expectations are and outlining the process for reporting and dealing with complaints of this nature. This should be backed up by training for managers and supervisors on how to identify and handle concerning behaviour.
When faced with any sexual harassment issue, always take advice at the earliest opportunity. For professional support, contact Bira Legal on 0345 450 0937 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.