A recent survey by the Trades Union Congress found that more than half of women polled had been subjected to sexual harassment at work.

The survey found:

  • 52% of 1,533 adult women polled have experienced some type of sexual harassment at work.
  • 32% of women have been exposed to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature.
  • 20% of women experienced unwanted sexual advances.
  • One in five women said that the perpetrator of the sexual harassment was their direct manager or a person with direct authority over them.
  • Four in five women did not report sexual harassment to their employer.

What is sexual harassment?

The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment 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 for them. It can take place in the workplace, at a work social event, on a work trip or at a client’s workplace and by different people such as a manager, colleague or customer.

Examples of sexual harassment include jokes about a colleague’s sex life, unwelcome touching, demands for sexual favours or sending offensive emails.

Banter amongst colleagues and managers is common in the workplace. One colleague may find the banter amusing, but others may find it offensive and uncomfortable. So it is important to be aware of the people around you and how your comments may affect their feelings.

How can you prevent sexual harassment?

Anything that an employee does during the course of their employment will be deemed as having been also done by the employer, irrespective of whether the employer knew or approved the action or comment constituting sexual harassment. You, as an employer, must be able to prove that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing sexual harassment in the workplace. You will not be able to argue this successfully if you accept a working environment where sexual banter is widespread.

A good starting point is to develop and promote a working environment where employees are encouraged to report any cases of sexual harassment. Employees may be reluctant about coming forward for many reasons, so it is critical that that their complaint is taken seriously and dealt with sensitively and confidentially.

How to deal with a complaint of sexual harassment

Once you have received a complaint about sexual harassment, you must investigate the matter promptly and thoroughly. The key question to ask is “could the comment or action be reasonably considered to have caused offence?” If no reasonable person would be offended, then no sexual harassment has occurred.

The way you resolve an issue will depend on the merits of the case, but it could include an informal discussion, counselling, mediation or going through formal disciplinary procedures. In very serious cases, it may result in dismissal for gross misconduct.

A lack of appropriate safeguards to protect your employees from sexual harassment can leave you open to potential claims. Contact Ellis Whittam to find out we can help you.

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