Introduced in 1984, The Sex Discrimination Act defines sexual harassment as taking place when a person:
- Makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, or
- Engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.
This can include
- Unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing, leering
- Suggestive comments or ribald jokes
- Persistent sexual innuendo or insults
- Unwelcome requests for sex
- Intrusive questions about an employee’s private life or body, along with
- Criminal matters such as sexual assault, stalking or indecent exposure.
It does not have to be repeated or continuous to be against the law. It can be a one-off incident.
Some of the most frequently reported forms of physical sexual harassment include unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing; inappropriate physical contact; and sexually explicit emails or texts.
This would see an employer or employee display unwelcome sexual advances, ask for sexual favours or display sexual behaviour that intends to make another person feel offended, intimidated or humiliated. Online, this harassment could include making unwelcome sexual comments, sending explicit images or sharing personal images of the victim via text, email, instant messaging or with social media messaging.
You need to recognise the behaviour, and do all you can to reduce the risk of it happening in the first place.
As a start, you need to establish the following:
1. A clear, plainly worded sexual harassment policy
Make it clear that you have zero tolerance for harassment in any form, and make sure your sexual harassment policy includes:
- Your company’s position on sexual harassment
- A clearly worded definition and specific examples of where sexual harassment may happen e.g. work conferences, celebration events like the Christmas party, work trips, etc.
- A statement of what is not sexual harassment such as behaviour that is mutually acceptable to the parties concerned
- The consequences for employees who breach the policy
- Responsibilities of direct managers and co-workers
- Information on where employees can get help, or make a complaint
2. Effective communication of the policy
As we always say, it’s not enough to have a strongly worded workplace policy on sexual harassment, or any other workplace issue. You must apply the policy consistently across your business, and you must enforce it.
This means you should:
- Formally communicate the policy to all employees
- Provide training if required
- Ensure your employees sign a statement of understanding, and
- Retain the signed documents
3. An accessible process for dealing with complaints
You should nominate a senior employee (this could be you!) or the owner of the small business you work for as a sexual harassment complaints officer.
You also need to provide several different ways in which an employee can make a complaint in the event this senior employee is the harasser.
As complaints are often complex, sensitive and potentially volatile, you should ensure your complaint procedures are:
- Clearly documented and explained to all employees
- Timely and confidential, and address complaints in a fair and consistent manner
- Based on the principles of procedural fairness
- Administered by trained personnel
- Structured to provide clear guidance on internal investigation procedures and record keeping, with appropriate disciplinary outcomes
- Regularly reviewed for effectiveness, and give employees assurance that they will not be disadvantaged for making the complaint.
Your company’s dating policy comes into play, too. Companies like Google have created a ‘one chance’ policy to draw the line.
Avoid legal and reputation risks
Should an employee engage in sexual harassment in your place of work, the only way the company as the employer is not going to be held accountable is if you can demonstrate you took all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct happening.
Take the time now to update your policies, and procedures to make sure your staff know that it won’t be tolerated in your workplace and any allegations will be investigated.