How should employers deal with allegations of sexual harassment at work?
The Fawcett Society has published a report, “Tackling sexual harassment in the workplace: recommendations for employers”.
The published key findings of the report include:
- At least 40% of women have experienced workplace harassment
- 45% of women in a recent survey reported experiencing harassment online through sexual messages, cyber harassment and sexual calls
- Almost a quarter of women who had been sexually harassed said the harassment had increased or escalated since the start of the pandemic while they were working from home
- Almost seven in ten (68%) disabled women reported being sexually harassed at work, compared to 52% of women in general
- Ethnic minority workers (women and men) reported higher rates (32%) of sexual harassment than white workers (28%) over the last 12 months
- A poll of LGBT workers found that 68% had experienced some form of harassment in the workplace
The report found that current approaches to the prevention of sexual harassment are not effective. In particular that most current approaches to workplace sexual harassment are built around the premise of avoiding employer liability, but that a broader approach that includes a culture shift is what is needed.
Recommendations for tackling sexual harassment in the workplace
The report sets out five “key requirements to create a workplace that does not tolerate sexual harassment” and makes recommendations about steps that employers can take:
Culture change: the report recommends that employers improve equality, diversity and inclusion, particular at senior levels; demonstrate leadership commitment to tackling harassment by taking sexual harassment seriously and ensuring that leaders hold themselves and their peers to account; proactively communicate that any sexual harassment is unacceptable and address all incidents of sexual harassment with seriousness and professionalism.
Policy: the report recommends that employers create and publish a sexual harassment policy; communicate the policy to employees; and follow through on the policy statement.
Training: the report recommends that employers run training alongside other efforts to tackle workplace harassment; that the training should be tailored to the needs of the organisation and provided to all employees; that in addition, managers should receive training in how to respond to a report of sexual harassment; and that employers should monitor the effectiveness of the training.
Reporting mechanisms: the report recommends that employees should be allowed to make an informal or formal report and that they should be made aware of the difference; that there should be multiple reporting routes; and that employees should be encouraged to report any incidence of sexual harassment that they experience or witness.
Employers response to reports: the report makes a number of recommendations including that employers should treat employees who make a report with respect and empathy; provide ongoing support to the employee who made a report; provide guidance and support to managers dealing with reports of sexual harassment; investigate the report thoroughly and fairly; if the report has been substantiated, discipline the harasser; and keep the employee who made the report updated and informed of the outcome.
We reported earlier this year on the Government response into consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, in which it expressed a commitment to tackling sexual harassment in all its forms. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also published guidance on sexual harassment and other forms of harassment at work in 2020.
Employers must ensure that they are up to date with their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and the steps that they need to take to protect employees from sexual harassment. Employers can be liable for their employees’ acts of harassment unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from carrying out those acts. The introduction of policies and training is an important part of the process, but these must be regularly reviewed and updated where appropriate. We reported this year on a case which serves of a reminder to employers of the importance of implementing, monitoring and updating equality awareness policies and training; and the risks involved of allowing training to become “stale”.
20 October 2021
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