Resolving workplace sexual harassment claims

Mediation, coaching and training can all help employers effectively deal with complaints, says Tim Jones

Credit: Ivan-balvan/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Workplace sexual harassment remains a pervasive issue that not only undermines the wellbeing and dignity of individuals but also has significant consequences for organisations. Recent sexual harassment scandals, such as those in the CBI and the House of Commons and the allegations against hedge fund manager Crispin Odey, have highlighted the urgent need for businesses to address the problem.

There are key strategies that employers should adopt to try to prevent workplace sexual harassment, but mediation, coaching, investigation and training are vital steps if any claims are made. 

Traditional methods of handling harassment cases often result in a confrontational environment that can further traumatise victims and lead to increased tensions. In contrast, mediation provides a safe and neutral space for victims and alleged perpetrators to express their concerns, understand each other's perspectives and work towards a mutually acceptable resolution. Of course, mediation may not be appropriate in every case, but one of its primary advantages is being able to facilitate solutions that are tailored specifically to the individual case. Mediators, who are trained in conflict resolution and communication skills, help guide the parties through a structured process that encourages empathy, accountability and reconciliation. This can help to prevent a potential escalation of conflicts and create a healthier work environment. Mediation should be offered alongside formal grievance procedures, allowing victims to choose the path that best suits their needs and preferences.

Coaching is another powerful tool to have in the armoury. Focusing on individual growth and behavioural change, these sessions can be offered to both victims and perpetrators, as well as to witnesses who may have observed the harassment but did not intervene. For victims, coaching sessions provide a safe space for them to process their experiences, validate their emotions and regain their confidence. They also empower victims to assert their rights, as well as understand the available reporting mechanisms and support systems. When it comes to alleged perpetrators, coaching aims to create awareness about the impact of their behaviour. Coaches can help individuals recognise harmful patterns, attitudes and biases that contribute to harassment, enabling perpetrators to gain a deeper understanding of the victim's perspective and the consequences of their actions. Personal accountability is key, as well as developing strategies to prevent future incidents.

It is important not to forget bystander intervention training, which equips employees with the skills to recognise harassment, safely intervene and support victims. This proactive approach helps to promote a culture where everyone feels responsible for creating a safe and respectful work environment. 

It is essential that skilled investigators with expertise in handling sensitive matters are brought in as they understand the established protocols that must be followed, such as confidentiality. Both the victim and the alleged perpetrator should be given an opportunity to present their side of the story, provide evidence and identify witnesses. The findings should be shared with the relevant parties clearly and concisely. Should any claims of misconduct be substantiated, appropriate disciplinary measures must be taken that are consistent with the organisation's policies and applicable laws. 

Comprehensive and regular training programmes should be held to prevent workplace sexual harassment, encompassing all levels of the organisation. Training should educate employees about what constitutes sexual harassment in all its forms, the potential consequences for both individuals and the organisation and the avenues for reporting incidents. It should also include discussions on power dynamics, unconscious biases and the importance of bystander intervention, as well as reporting mechanisms and available support systems. However, specific sessions for managers and supervisors are important as they focus on preventing harassment, creating a respectful work environment and appropriately responding to reports of misconduct. 

Addressing workplace sexual harassment requires a multifaceted and holistic approach. While mediation, coaching, investigation and training are essential components, these strategies are most effective when supported by a comprehensive framework within the organisation. By tackling the problem effectively, employers can cultivate a culture of respect, inclusivity and equality, ensuring the wellbeing of all employees and building the foundation for a more equitable future.

Tim Jones is head of employment at Higgs

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