Under the Human Rights Act 1993 it is unlawful for a person in the area of employment to engage in sexual harassment towards another person.
Sexual harassment occurs in the workplace when one employee, often in a position of authority or influence over another employee:
- Offers or requests sexual favours with a promise of better treatment/career prospects if given, or a threat of worse treatment/career prospects if not given;
- Behaves in an unwanted or offensive way to another employee through language, “humour”, sharing images, or physical behaviour.
Examples of sexual harassment can be things like:
- Personal comments or teasing of a sexual nature
- Displaying sexually offensive images
- Sexual remarks or jokes
- Intrusive questions about a person’s sex life
- Unwanted physical contact
- Unwanted or persistent social invitations or contacts
- “Hints or promises” of career advancement for sexual favours, and vice versa
- Actual sexual assault or even rape (which are criminal offences)
Because of the difference in authority or power, victims of sexual harassment can often feel powerless or unable to prevent, stop or even report the situation. For this reason, it is very important that an employer creates a well-known, easily available and effective system for the reporting of sexual harassment and other conduct issues. This should at least be in the form of a policy, a complaints/grievance process and a clear code of conduct.
It is not enough, however, just to have systems and processes in place. Workplaces which are committed to preventing sexual harassment will:
- Provide training and instruction to all employees in relation to sexual harassment and the processes for dealing with complaints.
- Provide additional and specific training to managers and any health and safety representatives.
- Provide support to employees who experience (or observe) sexual harassment (this can be through confidential external support services such as an Employee Assistance Programme).
- Investigate complaints and take appropriate action.
The goal is to create a culture of consistent zero tolerance where employees know what is expected from them and what to expect from each other, where they respect each other and where their behaviour aligns with those expectations.
A positive and trusted workplace culture stands and falls by the open commitment of the employer’s leadership and their consistent behavioural example.
If an employee alleges that they have been sexually harassed, are you equipped and confident enough to manage this challenging matter?