If you have seen the news recently, then you might be aware that beloved British pop star, Robbie Williams, and his wife, Ayda Field, have been accused of sexual harassment against a former male employee in the US.
Sexual harassment can be a controversial topic, and there are a number of situations and scenarios that can be classified as sexual harassment under UK law. However, as an employer and a business, you cannot afford to become confused or complacent about what constitutes sexual harassment in your place of work. In relation to the case of Robbie Williams and Ayda Field, Personnel Today has published an article as a guide to types of sexual harassment in the workplace, and how to handle claims.
The first definition of sexual harassment at work constitutes unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
This particular definition can cover a number of different behaviours, even something that some people would consider ‘harmless’, such as sexually explicit jokes, sexual innuendos, sexual comments on appearance, or continual requests for dates.
The second definition of sexual harassment in the workplace is harassment that is specifically related to unwanted conduct related to a person’s gender. Again, this behaviour can have the purpose or effect of offending someone’s dignity or generally creating an unpleasant working atmosphere. Personnel Today gives examples of this type of behaviour:
Cases have decided that gossip about the paternity of an unborn child can be harassment on grounds of sex, as could hostile comments about childcare arrangements when a female employee has to constantly leave work early to care for her young children.
Even something such as putting materials up on a high shelf where none of the (naturally shorter) female staff can reach them could be viewed as harassment.”
The third type of sexual harassment is when an employee either rejects or willingly accepts to sexual advances, but is then treated less favourably by the harasser because of it.
No matter the form of harassment, if it is ‘unwanted’ then a claim can be made. As employers are liable for the actions of their employees, a claim of sexual harassment is the employer’s responsibility. This is the case for all businesses and organisation across the UK, and you must show that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent any forms of harassment in order to avoid liability.
To start with, any employer must ensure they have created a clear and comprehensive anti-harassment policy, which is distributed to all employees to make them aware of what action they need to take if they believe they are experiencing harassment. Employers also need to clearly devise the investigative procedure they will adopt when claims of sexual harassment are raised; this should include actions such as taking witness statements or suspending employment of the harasser. You also need to be sure that all harassment cases are taken extremely seriously and treated with consistency.
The article in Personnel Today also suggests:
Professionals should also undertake equal opportunity training with all managers at the very least and make sure that they discipline any employee guilty of harassment.
If they take all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct, then the employer will not be liable for the actions of an employee guilty of harassment, but the victim can still bring a claim against the harasser personally.”
As we previously mentioned, sexual harassment can be a controversial subject, and as an employer you really need to ensure that you have the right policies and procedures in place, both for the safety and well-being of your employees, as well as your business as a whole. It might be difficult to know if what you have produced is sufficient, and it is a good idea to seek professional advice so you can be sure you have truly made every effort to prevent harassment in your place of work.
About the author: Shakira Joyner is an independent HR Consultant with hchr Ltd in Swansea.