In recent weeks, a huge number of sexual harassment allegations have been made against political and media figures, highlighting the extent to which harassment issues are (still) depressingly common. From a HR point of view, the lessons around the reporting and handling of harassment incidents point to a need for employers to take a more proactive approach both to addressing harassment in the workplace and taking steps to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Harassment in the workplace is prohibited under the Equality Act 2010, which defines direct discrimination as less favourable treatment because of a protected characteristic. These protected characteristics are:
- gender reassignment;
- marriage and civil partnership;
- pregnancy and maternity;
- religion or belief;
- sex; and
- sexual orientation.
Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic that has the purpose or effect of:
- violating a person's dignity; or
- creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
The Act sets out two specific definitions of sexual harassment, which are:
- conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment; and
- less favourable treatment related to sex or gender reassignment that occurs as a result of a rejection of or submission to sexual conduct.
Examples might be: unwelcome sexual advances, suggestive behaviour, sending offensive emails or posting offensive social media content.
In order to address harassment issues in the workplace and try to prevent them occurring in the first place, employers should take the following steps:
- Have a robust anti-harassment policy in place which clearly states what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, and make sure staff are aware that there is no distance between what is stated in the policy and the actual behaviour of employees in the workplace. In this connection, the Simply-Docs Harassment and Bullying Policy has been revised and updated, along with the associated Employer Guidance Notes: Harassment and Bullying at Work Prevention.
- Encourage reporting of harassment incidents. Employers need to create a working environment where employees feel able to raise their concerns without fearing that their action might damage their career prospects. Employees must also feel assured that their concerns will be taken seriously and addressed with appropriate levels of professionalism and confidentiality.
- Provide training and education to employees at all levels so that staff properly understand the company’s culture and senior managers know how to deal with equal opportunities harassment issues.
The contents of this Newsletter are for reference purposes only and do not constitute
legal advice. Independent legal advice should be sought in relation to any specific