How should businesses protect themselves against sexual harassment claims surrounding Valentine’s Day?

Guest Blog by Emma O’Leary, employment law consultant for the ELAS Group.

Given the amount of time we spend in the work place it’s no surprise that many people meet their partner there. In 2017 more than 6 out of 10 office staff said that they have been involved in at least one work place romance, but the path of love doesn’t always run smoothly….especially when work is involved. That’s especially true at this time of year.

 

 

In our experience, business owners have long been seeking an answer as to how they should approach Valentine’s Day in the work place, with many actually seeking to ban the day all together. Does that seem to be a bit extreme and kill joy? Possibly, but the potential for a Valentine’s card, text message or any form of romantic/sexual message to cause offence is very real.

 

Just last year a Manchester biscuit factory employee was awarded £10,000 by an Employment Tribunal after her manager behaved in an inappropriate way. Lisa Vickers filed the complaint after she received a 40th birthday card from her manager Dave Ravenscroft in which he had written: “Lisa it’s your birthday, I bet you’re thrilled to bits, but not as much as I would be if I could feel your t**s!!”

 

It seems that every day the headlines are full of reports on sexual harassment from the recent revulsion over Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and the President’s Club gala to the #MeToo movement. It may seem to some as if that these are just news stories and, as such, are far removed from our own working lives but this couldn’t be further from the truth. A recent study found that over 50% of women had experienced sexual harassment at work and Parliament has opened an inquiry into the problem. It’s clearly happening and is something that employers need to take seriously.

 

A survey released last week revealed that one in five Parliamentary staff experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in Westminster over the last year – if it is happening to that extent in Parliament in these days of heightened awareness over sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace behaviour then to what extent is it occurring in less high profile workplaces?

 

Tech giants Facebook and Google have implemented a policy where employees are allowed to ask a co-worker out but only one time. If that person turns them down or gives an ambiguous answer, they do not get to ask again.

 

Romance is not dead but for the sake of protecting your employees and your business, it’s advisable to keep it out of the workplace as much as possible. There should be clear policies in place regarding workplace relationships and companies should take active steps to eradicate any platform that could be used to by a potential predator to harass a colleague. Valentine’s Day paraphernalia is the ideal scenario – on the face of things a card, flowers or cheeky comment might appear harmless and most of the time, it will be. However there is the very real capability of this turning more sinister and causing offence, which could lead to an employee feeling harassed.

Author: Kate Thomas

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