How To Deal With Sexual Harassment In Your Small Enterprise
According to a survey by the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project, more than one in two working women in the UK has experienced sexual harassment at work.
That’s a shocking almost two-thirds of women (63 percent) of women in the workplace when they’re between 16 and 24 years old.
One effect of the recent #MeToo movement, calling men on charges of sexual harassment and abusing their positions of power, was an increased number of Internet searches for the term “sexual harassment”.
> See also: Sexual harassment: #MeToo and Time’s up encourage employees to speak up
Fortunately, the same sexual harassment legislation applies to all businesses large and small in the UK as everything falls under the heading of discrimination.
And discrimination is taken very seriously by law. As a small business, you could lose tens of thousands of pounds out of your pocket in a badly handled discrimination case. It could also cause serious reputational damage to you.
Laura Ranaghan, Human Resources Consultant at Citrus HR said, “The content of the policy addressing sexual harassment in large companies like M&S will be the same process that you need to follow in your own small business, even though it is the advantage of having large HR departments that can handle complaints. “
So what’s the right way for a small business to deal with sexual harassment allegations?
> See also: The Harvey Weinstein Sexual Harassment Case – What Can We Learn?
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is undesirable behavior that intimidates, offends, or feels offended in any way. There are the more easily recognizable examples of unwanted physical contact or more serious attacks. However, it doesn’t always have to be physical contact – it can be lewd jokes or spreading pornographic images in a group chat or, for example, commenting on a person’s appearance.
It could also seem as harmless as repeatedly asking a coworker to have an unwanted drink after work, or what could be construed as a light-hearted, easygoing joke or a tasteless joke. A sales rep who thinks they’re funny because they’re flirtatious can intimidate and scare an employee.
However, all of this is done on a case-by-case basis as it is not possible to create an employee behavior list that covers everything that is potentially harassed and everything that is not. What one person defines as unwanted attention or feels offensive may be acceptable to another person.
One of the difficulties that can arise in a workplace is when someone complains about being harassed by a coworker and the coworker says they didn’t notice that their behavior was offensive or undesirable. Even if the complained person had no intention of harassing, the focus remains on the person who is feeling harassed and how they are feeling rather than what was intended.
What should i do first?
When someone makes a sexual harassment complaint, they have the option to either address it informally first or through a formal harassment complaint process, if you have one.
You should be familiar with this complaints procedure, or you can consult the standard documentation at the ACAS dispute resolution service in the workplace.
First, determine whether or not they want to get it dealt with formally or informally. Regardless of the answer, you need to research.
Karen Falconer, HR Knowledge Manager at HR Solutions, says, “I would always advise the person who blamed the harassment what you are going to do, what you are going to do and what the schedule will be.”
- Take any complaint seriously, no matter how trivial you consider it. Have a private conversation with your disgruntled coworker.
- Next, check to see if there is a harassment, bullying, or sexual harassment policy in place. A useful guide to sexual harassment from the dispute settlement service Acas can be found here
- At the same time, make a note of the conversation you have with your harassed employee for future reference
- Do you ask if they would like to make a formal complaint and put everything in writing?
Do I have to speak to the person who is the subject of the complaint?
Yes you do. You need to hear their version of events too.
Once you’ve gathered enough information, you need to have a meeting with the person suspected of harassment as soon as possible – ideally on the same day – especially if it involves gross misconduct. You may need to suspend them immediately (or an appropriate alternative).
On the other hand, once you investigate what happened, the alleged perpetrator can rightly say that it was all a misunderstanding.
“In the eyes of a layperson, there is room for reasonableness when it comes to sexual harassment,” says Falconer.
Ideally, you want the two people involved to put things together between them and not let things escalate further. Of course, this is only appropriate if the allegation is not serious enough to constitute a potential gross misconduct.
What if the person complaining is key to my business?
It is irrelevant. You need to set job performance or seniority aside. If you ignore the Equality Act 2010, you will be held both liable and vicarious for discrimination claims, which can be unlimited. Financial penalties could also be imposed for emotional harm.
What if I don’t believe a version of an event?
Regardless of whether the person who made the complaint asked you to formally deal with it, you have the option of escalating the matter to a disciplinary hearing yourself if you believe the behavior is reaching this threshold. You would need to let the person know that you would do this. .
What if I have a formal complaint?
If there was no room for an informal resolution, you will need to formally handle the complaint. They escalate it to follow your complaint or anti-bullying and harassment policy. You would need to invite the person complaining and the person complaining about to a formal meeting. It is common to give 48 hours notice and have the right to bring a union representative or work colleague. You will need to take notes of these meetings and conduct further investigations with witnesses before reaching your conclusions. The person who made the complaint has an appeal against the decision if they are not satisfied with it.
Ideally, the employee can contact a higher authority in your company that has not been involved before, or this is when you seek external support from an external recruiter. Remember that if you have handled things poorly, the outside recruiter could break anything you decide at the end of your internal investigation.
“We do, in fact, as unpopular as it is sometimes,” says Falconer.
However, the outcome of this higher authority will be final.
What if the complainant is still unhappy?
Although this is the end of the road internally, the employee could still seek external support.
In most cases, employees can only bring claims before the labor court if they have been with a company for more than two years. However, this is not the case with discrimination.
Again, they could go to Acas, which gives impartial advice on employment issues and whether the procedure has not been followed. Acas might then recommend that they reconcile early on.
What is early arbitration?
This is a move that was taken a few years ago, before anyone went to labor court.
Early arbitration is a free way for employees to settle outside of a formal hearing to reduce the number of cases brought to labor tribunal. Acas will provide an arbitrator who will contact you.
“Because the clerk says he wants to settle outside the tribunal – because when the time comes the questions to consider are, do you think you have a case and how much are you willing to pay?” says falconer.
What fines could I get for sexual harassment abuse?
Technically, there is no upper limit, as sexual harassment falls under the Discrimination Act, which has no upper limit on compensation for loss of earnings
The harassed employee who believes their allegation has been mistreated could either resign and then petition for constructive dismissal and gender discrimination. Or they could keep working for gender discrimination and still enforce it.
A labor court could award a separate loss of earnings award, and the court may hurt feelings that cost anywhere from £ 45,000 to £ 900,000, depending on the severity of the distress caused.
Read on about sexual harassment
How To Prevent Sexual Harassment In A Small Business