Since the #metoo movement hit the headlines, I’ve seen a big increase in the number of workplace sexual harassment cases.
In this climate, it can be tempting to focus on protecting those who make allegations. But as we all know, there are always two sides to every story.
In the eyes of the law, employers are responsible for giving both the person making the complaint and the person being accused a fair hearing.
In this article, I explore:
- what you need to do to protect your business from legal proceedings
- how you should deal with people who lodge a sexual harassment claim
- and how to treat those who have been accused, falsely or otherwise
What Counts as Sexual Harassment?
ACAS defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that violates the dignity of a worker. Or that creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be intentionally directed at an individual. Making sexual references, gestures or behaving inappropriately in a sexual way can still count as sexual harassment. Even if there’s no intended victim.
Critically, the nature of sexual harassment is defined by the person experiencing it. This means something can be considered sexual harassment even if the alleged harasser didn’t intend it to be.
- making comments of a sexual nature about an individual’s appearance
- asking questions about someone’s sex life
- telling offensive jokes
- displaying pornographic imagery
- sending emails of a sexual nature
- making unwanted physical contact
- sexual assault
Legally, all your employees, male and female, at all levels of the company are protected from sexual harassment. Depending on the nature of the incident, they will be covered by employment and/or criminal law.
As a business owner, you’re responsible for the safety of your people. Which means dealing appropriately with claims of sexual harassment is critical for the security of your business.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Like many crimes of a sexual nature, harassment often takes place behind closed doors or away from other people. Without witnesses, cases often set one person’s account against the other’s.
As with any grievance, sexual harassment can only be alleged until a full investigation has taken place. This should align with your grievance policy and procedure which should follow the ACAS Code of Practice.
Investigate Thoroughly and Sensitively
Although it may feel like there’s a lot of pressure to act in the face of claims of sexual harassment, it’s important that you don’t jump to conclusions.
You will need to conduct an investigation into the alleged sexual harassment. In cases of serious sexual harassment you may need to involve the police. Your investigation can run alongside the police investigation and you can take the police’s findings into account.
Depending on the type of allegation, you may need to consider working arrangements while the matter is investigated. This could include asking the accused to work from home or putting them on paid leave if paths are likely to cross.
Experiencing – and being accused of – sexual harassment is often extremely upsetting, so the case needs to be handled sensitively. It’s extremely important that both the claimant and the accused are supported throughout the process.
The individual making the claim can choose to remain anonymous. However, it’s really important that the person being accused of sexual harassment understands the claim being made against them. This will allow them to mount a defence.
The individual making the claim should provide as much proof as possible to support their case. If emails have been sent they should provide copies of them. Or if there are witnesses, they should be asked to provide evidence.
If the outcome of the case is that the accused is guilty, you will need to take appropriate disciplinary action in line with your procedures. What constitutes a reasonable or justified action will depend on the details of the case. However, all outcomes should be fair and consistent.
Failing to deal with sexual harassment claims fairly for both parties can place your business at risk from tribunal or criminal claims.
What Happens if the Claims Are Groundless?
When someone is falsely accused of sexual harassment they will likely find the experience traumatic. It’s important that you deal with these individuals fairly as other employees will be watching your approach. If possible, you should integrate them back into the business.
Depending on the circumstances, you may feel that you need to take action against the accuser. This forms part of your duty to ensure your employees work in a safe environment where they are not put at risk. Even from false accusations.
Sexual harassment is one of the most difficult claims to investigate and deal with. As long as you do so legally, promptly and deal sensitively with all parties involved, you will be acting appropriately. Which will safeguard your employees and protect your business.
Don’t deal with sexual harassment claims alone. Contact Crosse HR for pragmatic support on 0330 555 1139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.