It has been hard to escape on the news recently that there have been lots of troubling stories coming to light about abuse of power. We’ve had stories of sexual harassment and assault coming out of Hollywood and recently stories have been emerging of abuses of power in Westminster. It has recently been announced that party leaders at Westminster have agreed a new complaints procedure to investigate allegations of misconduct (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-41892271)
If allegations of this type are being brought at the highest level of government, how are smaller organisations to respond? What can an employer do to protect its staff from the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace and how should it respond if such an allegation is made?
All employers, of whatever size, would be well advised to take the following steps:-
- Have an Equality Policy in place that makes it clear that unlawful discrimination / harassment will not be tolerated
- Make sure that the Equality Policy is kept under review, that it names the person within the organisation who is responsible for implementing the policy, and that that person does in fact lead the implementation of the policy
- Clearly warn employees that any unlawful discrimination is treated with the utmost seriousness and is likely to be deemed to be gross misconduct. Lists of gross misconduct rules in Disciplinary procedures should make clear that acts of discrimination and harassment are gross misconduct offences
- Make sure that all employees are familiar with the Equality policy and any other relevant policies which are intended to prevent unlawful discrimination and harassment.
- Provide training to employees. In particular, employees should be told that it is not a defence to say that the thing said or done was “a joke” or “banter”. Refresh equality training at regular intervals and maintain a record of such training
If, despite taking these preventative measures, an allegation of inappropriate behaviour is made, the complaints should be handled in a prompt fashion and be treated with the priority and seriousness that they deserve.
Employers should keep an open mind when conducting investigations and treat the complainant with empathy, whilst always ensuring that the investigation progresses and difficult lines of enquiry are properly addressed rather than swept under the carpet.
Steps should be taken to separate the complainant from the alleged harasser. This may include suspending the alleged harasser to allow an unhindered investigation to take place. Advice should be sought before suspending an employee. If, after investigation, it is found that the complaint is upheld, the disciplinary procedure should be invoked and the alleged harasser should expect to face an allegation of gross misconduct.
For advice on steps to take to mitigate against the risk of harassment occurring in the workplace or on how to deal with an allegation if one is made, please get in touch.