The #MeToo movement brought substantial attention, not just to the issue of sexual harassment in the film industry, but also to the challenges facing HR departments in the office. There are indications that COVID-19, and the consequential pressures on almost every workplace has increased the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment, with staff increasingly working away from stable office environments. Employers should ensure their current anti-harassment measures remain “fit-for-purpose” and adopt new measures where necessary.
Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and can include “jokes” or “banter”, as well as more serious advances such as unwanted touching, sending sexually explicit messages or sexual assault. The impact of the behaviour is what matters, even if the behaviour was not intended as sexual harassment and it can affect people of any gender or sexual orientation. The consequences of sexual harassment can be extremely damaging, for the individual employee who may suffer mental and physical consequences, but also for businesses in general – a toxic environment may lead to wider productivity and retention issues and grievances reaching tribunals can be costly both in fees and company reputation. Employers may avoid vicarious liability for employment-related sexual harassment if they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment.
But why has the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace increased during these times of separation? Remote working has produced increased opportunities for online harassment and one-to-one access to colleagues outside of working hours. Social distancing has also meant that less employees are present to supervise, witness or challenge inappropriate behavior in the workplace. The increased reliance on freelancers and contractors for specific projects – individuals who may be unfamiliar with the business culture, or, if they are victims of sexual harassment themselves, may be unware of reporting protocols in the company or may simply fear losing work – is a further risk factor.
As the UK heads towards further lockdown measures, employers should be taking precautions to mitigate risk factors. We’ve gathered some advice and guidance to get you started:
- Refresh your understanding of your obligations under the Equality Act – check out the user-friendly resources of the the Equality and Human Rights Commission and their practical tips.
- Review your existing anti-harassment business policies and training materials to ensure that the expected standards of behavior are set out clearly.
- Engage staff members in renewing their understanding of your anti-harassment policy.
- Consider organizing additional training to equip managerial staff with tools for challenging inappropriate behavior.
- Make sure that the presence of the HR department is known to employees, despite remote working practices.
- Highlight to everyone in your business, freelancers included, how to raise concerns and how complaints will be handled.
- Continue to embed an appropriate business culture into your organisation – from first to exit interview – so that everyone in the business understands that such behavior is not tolerated.
- Check that your privacy policies enable you to monitor employee communications to investigate and respond to harassment allegations and as part of your anti-harassment preventative measures.
- Ensure that your electronic communications policy sets out clear standards of conduct and performance, providing examples of unacceptable behaviour, and enable staff members to familiarise themselves with these standards.
- Take allegations seriously and treat those who come forward with empathy – sexual harassment can be a daunting experience. Responding to issues sensitively and appropriately will encourage greater confidence of staff in their management team and will promote a more transparent culture.
The above guidance is designed to assist HR teams to revisit their policies and procedures in the wake of COVID-19 and the looming second lockdown. Our privacy and employment teams are on hand to provide specialist advice in the event that sensitive issues arise.
Article written by: Syvanne Aloni