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Alexandra Bonner

What is sexual harassment, and how to prevent it in the workplace

Alexandra Bonner (pictured) and Becky Minear, Goodman Derrick employment law specialists, offer #eventprofs a legal steer for defining sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of, violating a person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating or hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Examples include sexual jokes, unwelcome touching, or sending/displaying sexual content.

What duties do employers have?

Employers have a duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace by and against employees. This duty extends to work-related events like office parties and conferences. This means that employers can be vicariously liable for an act of harassment by one employee against another if it took place “in the course of their employment”.  Employers may however have a defence if they can show they took reasonable steps to prevent such conduct. 

Somewhat surprisingly, as a result of a change in the law a few years ago, there is currently no similar duty on employers to prevent harassment of their employees by third parties, like clients, although employees may still have some limited protection. However, this may well change in the future as there has been a renewed call for the reintroduction of the repealed provision contained in the Equality Act 2010 (which rendered employers liable, in certain circumstances, for the harassment of their employees by third parties) in the wake of the ill-fated Presidents Club dinner. 

How to prevent and deal with sexual harassment in the workplace?

Adopt clear policies regarding sexual harassment, which also set out how complaints can be made, how investigations will be handled and what disciplinary measures will be considered.

Carry out comprehensive training for all employees on appropriate behaviour at work. In addition, provide specific training to supervisors and managers on how to deal with complaints. 

When investigating allegations, keep thorough and accurate records of interviews and any relevant documentation which may evidence the harassment.

Ensure that any complaints are treated with sensitivity, are taken seriously and are investigated thoroughly.

Ensure that if a complaint is lodged, the harassed employee is communicated with regularly, to ensure they don’t experience retaliation or further harassment, potentially from other work colleagues.