As an employer, are you liable for the actions of your staff when it comes to matters involving sexual harassment?

The Equality Act  2010 says as an employer, you have a duty to stop employees from harassing one another, so in answer to the above question, the employer IS liable for the actions of its staff.   The Women and Equalities Committee – who are appointed by the House of Commons to examine government policy – have made recommendations about how the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace should be tackled.  The Government responded to these claims and a summary of the initial factors and subsequent report is available in PDF on request to Alexis Lane .

What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Claims can be made in the employment tribunal by men or women, job applicants, employees, and apprentices.

There are 3 different types of claims:

  • Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.  This means the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. This would include inappropriate touching, sexual innuendos, persistent requests for dates, leering and suggestive gestures, invasion of your personal space, and sexually explicit jokes.
  • Treated less favourably. If someone has sexually harassed you or made sexual advances (whether you rejected or accepted) but are subsequently treated less favourably by the person who has harassed you.  Examples – intentionally blocking your promotion or training opportunities, unwarranted criticisms or offensive comments .
  • Sex-related harassment, where there is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which relates to your gender, which again, has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or creating an unpleasant environment. This would include, for example, hostile comments about childcare arrangements (if you are a female) and you have to constantly leave work early to care for your young children.

Guidelines for Employers

Employers need to play a key part in ensuring their environment is considerate of dignity and respect for all their employees.  Commitment to openness in the workplace, especially to for victims who are scared to come forward for fear of being penalised.

Employers should ensure:

  • Culture: It fosters a culture whereby reporting of incidents is encouraged.
  • Training: Staff are educated as to what constitutes harassment. This includes HR Managers and all members of staff.
  • Policies: There are suitable anti-harassment and bullying policies in place and that it acts in line with these.
  • Procedures:  There are clear strategies in place for employees to report unacceptable behaviour and that employees are made expressly aware of this. This would include making employees aware of grievance and whistleblowing procedures.
  • Investigations: Where any complaint has been made, that steps are taken to properly investigate.
  • Support:  Someone who has made a complaint is properly supported throughout the process, including appropriately managing their work environment during any investigation.
  • Action:  It takes appropriate disciplinary action against the accused where this is warranted, and if necessary, considers whether this is a matter which needs to be referred to the police.

In the area of employment law, prevention is better (and cheaper) than cure. Clients who seek legal advice at an early stage nearly always manage to avoid tribunal proceedings.

As well as advising on sexual harassment in the workplace, discrimination, TUPE (transfer of undertakings protection of employment), and contracts of employment, we can also help with the following areas:

  • restrictive covenants
  • redundancy
  • allegations of bullying
  • flexible working and parental rights
  • regulations relating to part-time or fixed term work
  • data protection and workplace monitoring
  • pensions (including the issues that arise if you are thinking of changing your pensions scheme)

If you are seeking guidance on current policies and practices, or need further advice please contact Alexis Lane at The Head Partnership Solicitors LLP on 0118 9209490.