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Employers warned to take sexual harassment seriously

View profile for Phil Cookson
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Two recent news stories highlight the continued problem of sexual harassment in the workplace and the risks to employers who commit such acts or do not take complaints seriously.

The TUC union has published the results of a survey of 1,500 women which suggests a continuing problem of sexual harassment at work and a failure by management to take the problem seriously causing many to fear reporting incidents.  More than 50% of those surveyed reported sexual harassment as a problem and a third had been subjected to unwelcome jokes, with a quarter reporting unwelcome and inappropriate touching.

The judgment of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in the case of AA Solicitors Ltd v Majid was also published this week.  The case concerned a claim for sexual harassment brought by a female trainee solicitor against her employer.  The Employment Tribunal (ET) found that Majid has been subjected to numerous acts of sexual harassment which in the view of the EAT “violated the Claimant’s dignity as a worker”.  The EAT upheld the ET’s award of £14,000.00 for injury to feelings.

Save for what might be seen as exceptional cases where the alleged harasser is the sole employer, as in Majid, employers should be careful when dealing with allegations of sexual harassment.  Complaints can arise as much from the employer’s failure to act as might arise from an act of harassment itself.  The TUC’s research showed that, in many cases, employers fail to act on allegations causing staff to be afraid to report incidents or simply not report at all.

So what should an employer do about sexual harassment? 

  1. Have robust policies.  First and foremost ensure you have a policy dealing with bullying and harassment.
  2. Make staff aware of the policy and ensure it is accessible.
  3. Ensure supervisors and managers know their role in identifying harassment and are equipped to deal with incidents and reports from staff.
  4. Make sure reports from staff are dealt with thoroughly in accordance with your policies.
  5. Consider suspension or movement of staff, where appropriate, whilst investigations are undertaken.  Offer support as necessary to staff alleging harassment.
  6. Report decisions following investigations and be alive to options such as training or mediation in addition to traditional disciplinary sanctions such as warnings or dismissal as may be appropriate.