Combating sexual harassment at work

Jane Bowen reports on a recent workplace scandal that serves as a timely reminder for employers to get their harassment policies in order

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It’s easy to think that sexual harassment is no longer an issue in the workplace following the success of the #MeToo movement. However, a recent sexual harassment scandal at broadcaster Al Jazeera should remind employers of the importance of ensuring their staff don’t face harassment, and that those who do face it can report it without fear of repercussions.

Journalist Kamahl Santamaria resigned from his new role with a New Zealand broadcaster after 32 days because of allegations of inappropriate behaviour. A BBC investigation then revealed further accusations from his previous position at Al Jazeera, with many of the broadcaster’s employees alleging a ‘toxic work culture’ where allegations of harassment, sexism and racism go largely unaddressed. 

A working environment such as the one alleged at Al Jazeera exposes businesses to the risk of legal claims and, coupled with this, the UK government announced plans last year to create a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. While not yet law, the proposed duty does suggest a shift towards businesses having to do more to address sexual harassment in the workplace. So, what can they do?

Adopt a zero-tolerance policy 

All organisations should have a policy outlining their zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment at work. This advice should be visible, such as on a company intranet, and relayed to employees at their induction and periodically thereafter. Some individuals try to explain away their behaviour as only being a ‘joke’ or ‘just banter’. This highlights the importance of employees being given regularly updated harassment training. 

It's important to remember that harassment can be verbal as well as physical. It can also happen out of office hours, such as at events, by text message or on social media. The definition of sexual harassment is engaging in ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature’ that has the purpose or effect of either violating an individual’s dignity or creating a degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. So, if an individual says or does something that makes an individual feel degraded, even if the comment wasn’t directed towards them, it could be classed as sexual harassment.

Have processes in place

While it is crucial that employers try to prevent sexual harassment happening, it is equally important to have clear processes in place to ensure employees know how, and to who, they can raise complaints and feel comfortable doing so. This could be a workplace champion who is independent of HR and specially trained to deal with sexual harassment matters.

Managers should be given training in how to manage allegations of sexual harassment to help them address them quickly and effectively. This training needs to include ensuring the complainant is provided with the proper support and is not subjected to any form of victimisation. 

When to investigate?

When an allegation of sexual harassment is made, practical considerations should be taken into account such as whether arrangements need to be implemented to ensure that the complainant and the alleged perpetrator do not continue to work together while an investigation is carried out.

Sexual harassment investigations can be more complicated than a standard grievance investigation as the police could be conducting their own criminal inquiry. If this is the case then the question arises of whether to investigate internally while the police probe is ongoing, or to wait until it has finished. The issue with pressing ahead is that the alleged perpetrator may not engage with the process, for fear of incriminating themselves, while putting the internal matter on hold could leave an employee suspended for months.

Another problem is that an internal investigator may have to manage reluctant witnesses and requests for anonymity. Employers may therefore wish to consider offering specialist training to those within the organisation who may be asked to investigate this type of grievance.

Employers need to be aware that sexual harassment hasn’t gone away, and prevention in the workplace should remain a priority. 

Jane Bowen is an employment solicitor at Devonshires