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Dealing with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

by Published on

The recent New York Times expose featuring a Hollywood movie mogul has led to a global conversation on the topic of sexual harassment, specifically experiences encountered in the place of work. 

The spark igniting this discussion happened on October 5th when the New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor and investigative reporter Megan Twohey revealed sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Weinstein.  For those outside of Hollywood or the wider world of movie making and entertainment these revelations were shocking.  What became swiftly apparent however was that Mr. Weinstein’s alleged behaviour was itself a well-known story within the industry.

For many women the NYT article proved to be all they needed to step forward and confirm what many had long suspected and add weight to the growing body of evidence against the so called “starmaker”.  Mr. Weinstein strongly denies these allegations asserting that any such activity was consensual.

Long regarded as the stuff of legend it begins to look as though the “casting couch” was very much alive in the 21st century and if the allegations are proven true a man in a position of significant power and influence used these attributes for self-gratification.

Following on from the rise in debate of such behaviours actress Alyssa Milano contributed with her own suggestion, tweeting that anyone who had experienced sexual harassment or assault to reply with the hashtag #MeToo .  This post by Milano resulted in thousands of victims of sexual harassment sharing their experiences on social media.  To date she has had 69,000 responses to her tweet.

Most recently the Government, charged with setting legislation to address such issues, found itself at the centre of scandalous revelations concerning the behaviour of MP’s and Peers.  It appears no facet of our society is immune from what’s proving a very current and endemic problem some may have hoped left behind in the last century. 

What Should We Look Out For?

The culture of an organisation can be such that it allows for a base and disrespectful level of behaviour.  Those of us who lived and worked through the 1970’s and 80’s may recall a workplace where certain types of calendar or posters were displayed, sexually explicit jokes regarded as expected office entertainment and the tone and content of communications to and about women often demeaning and offensive.

Unfortunately, such environments have survived into the 21st century and occasionally an employee who may have experienced such a culture in a prior workplace may try and bring that “throwback” approach to your business.

You must ensure that you protect ALL staff.  Whilst the victims of many of the recent allegations are predominantly female we should not overlook the fact there are also male victims of sexual harassment.

What Steps Can We Take to Protect Our Employees? 

Open Door Policy

Staff must feel they are able to speak to supervisors, managers, HR staff or someone in authority to share any concerns or report behaviours. 

Clarity on Acceptable Behaviour

In light of the recent public airing of so many cases of sexual harassment it is going to be a topic of conversation at work, at home and when socialising.  Be clear with your staff as to what you consider unacceptable behaviour.  You may wish to engage with your staff to assist in reviewing and updating your policies with regard to this potential problem in the workplace.  If they feel part of the process of highlighting the issue and aware of the policy through its development they will be more likely to stop any emerging behaviours or potential perpetrators will know not to commit any unwelcome acts.

What is unacceptable….?

Any act from male to female, female to male or among individuals of the same sex which are sexual in nature and unwelcome.  This activity may be focused on a particular person, persons or group.  The Equality Act 2010 prohibits sexual harassment, defined as conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

This will include…

  • Physical acts which are sexual in nature and unwelcome.  This could manifest as direct assaults, touching, patting, or pinching, impeding, movement or any physical interference with normal work or movement.
  • “Banter” it’s not acceptable for sexual jokes, comments or slurs, repeated requests for dates or compliments and comments on physical appearance that suggest the perpetrator is taking an unhealthy interest.  If the recipient considers these approaches unwelcome they should be empowered to respond as such or be able to report the behaviour without fear of repercussion.
  • Nonverbal communication, which can be interpreted as sexual in nature and thereby unwelcome.  This can include staring, facial expressions and sexually suggestive gestures.
  • Visuals – back to the calendars and posters mentioned above.  If they are sexual in nature and unwelcome they may also appear in signs, e-mail, letters, poems, graffiti, cartoons or drawings, pictures and computer programs.

Consequences for Misconduct

As we can see from the statistics and the recent publicity and public response to the Weinstein story harassment of a sexual nature is one of the most common forms of harassment. Sexual Harassment is outlawed by the Equality Act 2010 as is harassment related to relevant protected characteristics.

If a member of staff is found to be guilty of committing an act of Sexual Harassment the employer will need to decide on the proportionate action.  If considered relatively minor and a first offence the employee may receive a warning in that any such subsequent acts will be considered an immediate dismissible offence.  If it is possible, the member of staff found guilty of harassment may be re-located from the area in which they have committed the act.  This step helps to avoid difficulties with the victim.

If the matter is a repeat of previous acts or sufficiently serious to merit it the member of staff should be dismissed.

Tune in to Internal & External Chat

It is always useful keeping an ear to the ground and an eye on body language.  An increase in absences may indicate more about the working environment than the physical health of the member of staff.  If they are being harassed at work they will become stressed and the workplace a venue to dread rather than welcome each day.  Be alive to staff comments, avoiding obvious gossip and tittle tattle note any changes in work patterns, productivity and mood.  A discrete chat can often help identify the cause.  Equally visitors to your business or those you visit offer points of engagement which need to be monitored. 

Make Policies Public

Everyone in your organisation needs to be made aware of your policy and the consequences for behaviour that could be termed sexual harassment.  Many members of staff may try and dismiss comment as “banter” and behaviour as “no one’s ever complained” the fact is the World has moved on and respect and trust in the workplace must be observed as an absolute right.  Any breach of respect or trust could result in the loss of their job.

Provide Training

With many reported cases of authority figures committing acts of sexual harassment it’s imperative that your managers receive appropriate training for their role and responsibility for those working for them.

Create a Clear Process to Support Staff if Harassed

Now would be an ideal time to review your approach to such matters.  If you would like to discuss your approach or have any specific concerns with regard to the topic above please do not hesitate to contact Sally Fletcher sallyfletcher@samuelphillips.co.uk or call 0191 2328451

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