Staff welfare: Giving voice

As the #metoo movement continues to make headlines, Janice Sibbald offers advice on tackling inappropriate behaviour at work

 

HE IS the brains behind some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, but Harvey Weinstein stands accused of a catalogue of claims of sexual harassment against actresses and female employees spanning the last two decades.

A renowned film producer, Weinstein allegedly used his position of authority and power to sexually harass women. Not long after these accusations emerged, the “#MeToo” movement spread virally across social media encouraging women to speak out about their own experiences of inappropriate behaviour.

It is clear that sexual harassment is very much an issue in many workplaces. Two in five women in the UK say they have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work but only a quarter reported it, according to a recent BBC survey. The issue does not only impact women, with 18 per cent of men stating that they too have been harassed at work.

WHAT IS IT?

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that:

  • violates your dignity
  • makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • creates a hostile or offensive environment.

It can be broadly categorised into three groups: verbal, non-verbal and physical. It can happen to women and men and can occur between people of the same sex or the opposite sex.

Examples of verbal harassment include comments about appearance, body or clothes; indecent remarks; and questions or comments about your sex life. Non-verbal harassment may involve looking or staring at a person’s body; displaying sexually explicit material such as photos or magazines; or sharing emails with sexual content. Physical harassment can range from physically touching, pinching, hugging or kissing to assault and rape.

Harassment can be subtle and you don’t have to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be unwanted. Even if the person didn’t mean for it to be perceived that way, it can still very much be classed as harassment.

We frequently get calls from practices about “banter” in the workplace. After all, it is just a bit of harmless fun isn’t it? Bear in mind that what one person may deem as “joking around” or light-hearted fun might be perceived by another as sexually inappropriate.

CASE LAW

The employment tribunal cases described below provide useful learning points to any employer tempted to dismiss or fail to take seriously complaints of harassment from employees.

In the case of Austin v Samuel Grant (North East) Ltd, a heterosexual male employee won a harassment claim on the basis of sexual orientation and religion or belief. The employee was referred to as “homosexual” and “gay” by colleagues because he had told them that he didn’t like football. He had filed a grievance but the HR director rejected it on the basis that the remarks were simply “office banter”.

In Furlong v BMC Software Ltd, a tribunal upheld an employee’s claim that she was subjected to sex discrimination and sexual harassment, including an incident where a senior manager groped her bottom and told her “he would like to eat her like a marshmallow”. As well as upholding the employee’s claim, the tribunal made recommendations to the employer to review their equal opportunities policy and training to management.

Harassment of a sexual nature is one of the most common forms of harassment and is specifically outlawed by the Equality Act 2010.

TAKING ACTION

Employers can prevent or address this issue by having an up-to-date and relevant policy that you may wish to display in the workplace. It should include:

  • a statement of commitment from senior management
  • a clear statement that bullying and harassment is unlawful and will not be tolerated
  • examples of unacceptable behaviour
  • a statement that bullying and harassment may be treated as disciplinary offences
  • reference to confidential routes for complaints
  • protection from victimisation
  • how the policy is to be implemented, reviewed and monitored.

The important thing is to ensure that employees are aware of how they can raise concerns and that they feel supported in doing so. Complaints should always be taken seriously and handled fairly and sensitively. Some organisations suggest complaints are made in writing in the form of a grievance letter to the relevant supervisor (likely to be the practice manager). It may be helpful for the complainant to make notes about the incident in question, especially if recalling the incident is particularly upsetting. Remember to also offer support and sensitivity to the person accused of harassment as this can be a distressing experience for them too.

This is a sensitive and complex area of employee relations and if you need any support or advice please contact an MDDUS employment law adviser on advice@mddus. com or on 0333 043 4444. There is also useful information on the Acas website.

Janice Sibbald is an employment law adviser at MDDUS