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Sexual Harassment and Bullying – How does your business combat it?

BY Donald MacKinnon
Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

The news has been dominated in recent weeks by the revelations of men in positions of power sexually harassing women. Whereas the coverage has had particular focus on Hollywood, big business and politics we know that this sort of behaviour happens everywhere and has done for years. It is commonly agreed that the allegations, particularly against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, should be a watershed moment where women feel able to tell their stories and society as a whole agrees to change the culture around harassment so these abuses no longer occur. It is important to note at this point that bullying and harassment can happen to anyone and is not exclusively an issue for women.

 The Equality Act 2010 contains a single definition of harassment which states;

Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”  

The protected characteristics referred to in this definition are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

As a business, it is important to have an Anti-Harassment and Bullying policy, which, if you have an Empire Employee Handbook will be included as standard. However, beyond simply having a stated policy it is equally important that your employees know about it and that it is adequately enforced. Given the topic, such allegations are very sensitive and can be difficult to handle. To make things easier, it is advisable to deal with any claims quickly, thoroughly and confidentially.

There are many occasions when the accused person will claim that there was no intention of harassment or bullying and it was just ‘banter’ and that the other person is overreacting. This can be a problem as it suggests that there could be a cultural issue within the business and make it more difficult to reasonably prove that there is individual victimisation. To prevent this occurring in your business, it is advisable to give examples of what is unacceptable to reduce the ‘grey areas’ where there might be conflict.

If you are faced with a complaint, it is likely you will want to resolve the dispute informally in the first instance. The employee may be happy to say to the perpetrator that the behaviour is unwelcome themselves, but they may also need support. This is most likely to be effective if the individual concerned is unware that their behaviour is causing offence and a discussion of this kind can be enough for the harassment to cease. If you believe that this is not appropriate and you think that this is a disciplinary issue, it should be dealt with in the normal way following the ACAS Code of Practice on Discipline and Grievance. If in doubt, please phone Empire as soon as possible to seek advice.

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