Sexual harassment in the workplace. A warning.

me too
With more and more allegations of sexual harassment coming to light, County Durham businesses are warned they could face potentially damaging tribunal payouts and reputational damage should a claim be made against their company.

Alison Schreiber, Director at The HR Dept, Durham & Darlington, looks at the issue and how it can be managed.

After coverage of the Harvey Weinstein news, stories from ordinary people through the hashtag #MeToo, and allegations against other stars like House of Card’s Kevin Spacey it’s time to do a review of policies and procedures. Even Westminster is to overhaul its staff complaints policy after nearly 40 ministers have been labelled ‘handsy’ in a leaked list of predators.

The highest sexual harassment tribunal payout at £830,000 means it pays to take this seriously.

Even more than the financial hit the reputational damage to a company can be more devastating, especially if the perpetrator has a history and is in a position of power, even more so when victims have been told to keep quiet. It is good to remember that no one is above the law and the dignity of all staff is paramount to a productive team.

Sexual harassment can include:

• sexual comments or jokes, wrongly often explained as a bit of banter
• physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault
• displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature like girly calendars
• sending emails with a sexual content

Sexual harassment complaints can end up at an employment tribunal – in a recent case, a factory worker won £10,000 compensation for sexual harassment after her boss wrote in her 40th birthday card that he wanted to grope her inappropriately. One person’s ‘bit of banter’ is another person’s humiliation and a subsequent court case.

Another tribunal in the NHS saw an HR manager win over £800k having been harassed after rejecting the advances of the chairman, claiming constructive dismissal, sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

Business owners can protect their staff from sexual harassment and their reputation by having clear and unequivocal bullying and harassment policies and processes. They should make it extremely and undeniably clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. That it will be dealt with swiftly and severely be it an allegation about the cleaner or the managing director and following an investigation appropriate disciplinary action will be taken if the allegations are proven up to dismissal.

Having official equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies down in writing is a great start. But these can also be supported by staff training and regular reviews and updates on the standards of behaviour expected.