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Sexual harassment in the workplace: what measures can employers take?

Sexual harassment in the workplace: what measures can employers take?

Now that staff are returning to the office, we’ve seen an increase in sexual harassment cases in the workplace. In the news, this month we have also seen a major story relating to a Member of Parliament who had a ‘moment of madness’ when he watched porn in the House of Commons, resulting in his resignation.

Let’s review the laws relating to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is defined as engaging in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose of effect of either violating an individual’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

Employers may be nervous about how to deal with complaints regarding sexual harassment as they can lead to lengthy processes and potentially expensive litigation. Settlement discussions are often tricky as employers don’t want to be seen as “paying off” an alleged perpetrator. Sexual harassment claims can also lead to reputational damage and staff retention issues and in the financial regulatory sector can impact on an individual’s fitness and propriety. In addition to well-known sexual harassment fall-outs, such as the Google walk out in 2018, there are numerous studies that have taken place into the negative impact of sexual harassment on businesses. Deloitte carried out a study in Australia in 2019 which sought to set out the economic costs of workplace sexual harassment. It is clear from our interactions that employers are generally taking sexual harassment seriously. 

Employers can try to take steps to prevent sexual harassment in their workplace. Important measures employers can take include:

  • Investigating problems quickly, sensitively, and effectively
  • Creating a culture of zero-tolerance
  • Having effective anti-harassment policies
  • Providing regular training to employees (which can provide a defence to employers who can show that they have taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent the harassment from taking place)

If an employer has taken these appropriate steps, they will be in a much better position to minimise any incidents and defend themselves against any claims of sexual harassment.