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The #MeToo movement and how it affects your business

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A BBC survey conducted last year showed that in the UK more than half of women, and a fifth of men, have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, ranging from inappropriate comments to sexual assaults. There are a number of steps that you can take as an employer to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace, as discussed below.

The #MeToo Movement and what you can do

The survey was commissioned in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns in the USA – the #MeToo movement was first seen in 2006, initiated by the social activist Tarana Burke, but it went viral in 2017 following a string of revelations surrounding sexual harassment in Hollywood, and shed light on the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment, particularly at work. It also made people acutely aware of the issues surrounding reporting sexual harassment in the workplace – that victims would not come forward not just for fear of not being believed, but also because of the prospect of the allegations affecting their career or reputation. Indeed, the survey found that 63% of female victims and 79% of male victims did not report the incidents.

This has led to many employers re-evaluating their policies and assessing whether or not they are fit for purpose. Here are some things that should be considered when tackling inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Training

Workplace training will help to educate your staff as to what constitutes sexual harassment, and what behaviours won’t be tolerated. Specific training surrounding sexual harassment is often given alongside comprehensive equality and diversity training, as these issues are often inextricably linked.

Another, newer initiative is ‘Active Bystander’ or ‘Intervene’ training, developed following research by Cornell University which showed that harassment was more likely to stop with the intervention of a bystander. The training, which is being adopted at a growing rate by universities in order to train both students and staff, empowers people to safely intervene when they witness harassment, and educates them as to the best methods of intervention depending on the situation at hand. This is something that could perhaps be considered for your workplace, in order to nurture a safer and more supportive environment.

Reporting

The process of reporting sexual harassment can be intimidating, and carries a lot of stigma. Reporting a colleague or manager is difficult as many victims feel that they will be judged by their peers, or worry about confidentiality.

Employers should be open about their reporting policy and make it easily accessible, in order to make certain that all employees know what to expect when reporting harassment, including the process that follows, what to expect in terms of confidentiality, and possible disciplinary outcomes.

Ensure that employees know who to complain to should they experience or witness inappropriate behaviour. It is good practice for there to be alternative contacts in the eventuality that the victim cannot talk to their manager or boss if the latter is the one instigating or facilitating the harassment. Alternative contacts might include:

  • a named ‘fair treatment contact’
  • a member of HR or Personnel with specialist training
  • a local trade union representative

Handling claims of harassment

Claims of sexual harassment should be taken seriously, and dealt with sensitively and promptly to stop the potential escalation of the problem. Dr Julia Shaw, a psychological scientist at UCL, recommends that employers respond to harassment allegations within 24 hours, as this reduces potential negative effects on the victim’s mental health.

It may be reasonable to implement a separate harassment policy, and consider methods of separating the concerned parties.

Bear in mind that measures put in place to mitigate distress during the investigation and disciplinary process and beyond may have an effect on the wider workplace (for example if the parties involved work in the same department and are separated, whether temporarily or permanently), which may, in turn, lead to additional emotional stress on the affected parties, and these situations should be handled with discretion.

In the event of an incident of harassment becoming a criminal matter, any police or court proceedings are not a substitute for dealing with the issue within your own organisation, nor should they delay this. A fair investigation and disciplinary process (where applicable) must still be enacted.

Contact

If you require assistance with drafting workplace policies, or require support or clarification on any of the issues discussed in this article, don’t hesitate to contact Susan Mayall at your earliest convenience on 0161 684 6948.

Sources

Acas Guidance - Discrimination: What to do if it happens

Acas sexual harassment information

BBC - 'Half of women' sexually harassed at work, says BBC survey

Please note that the information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Pearson Solicitors and Financial Advisers Ltd or any of its members or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.

This blog was posted some time ago and its contents may now be out of date. For the latest legal position relating to these issues, get in touch with the author - or make an enquiry now.

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