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How to deal with a complaint of sexual harassment by an employee

Sexual harassment at work

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual Harassment is one of the most difficult situations a worker can face.

The legal definition of Sexual Harassment is any ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them’.

Sexual harassment does not have to be intentionally directed at a specific individual. An action can be considered to be sexual harassment, even if the alleged harasser did not intend it to be.

Every worker is protected from sexual harassment at work through Employment Law and/or Criminal Law depending on the circumstances.

What does sexual harassment look like?

– Written or verbal comments of a sexual nature, such as remarks about an employee’s appearance; questions about their sex life or offensive jokes.
– Displaying pornographic or explicit images.
– Emails with content of a sexual nature.
– Unwanted physical contact.
– Sexual assault. (In this case it is also a criminal offence and should be reported to the police)

As an example, it is unlikely that a male employee who made a one-off comment to a female colleague about her new hairstyle would be considered to be harassing her. If, however, he made frequent comments about her appearance that she considered unwelcome, it may be.

How should you handle a complaint of sexual harassment?

All complaints of sexual harassment should be taken very seriously and handled fairly and sensitively. Be aware that it can take a great deal of courage to report a complaint of sexual harassment, and such allegations are not normally made lightly.

Experiencing sexual harassment is often extremely emotional and distressing for the worker involved. As an employer you should make reporting sexual harassment as stress-free as possible. In most cases this would involve simple things like making sure there is plenty of time to discuss the matter and finding a private space to meet.

Employers must allow the worker to be accompanied by a work colleague or a trade union representative at a grievance meeting involving allegations of sexual harassment. Sometimes it can help to allow the worker to be accompanied by a friend or family member, however this is at your discretion (unless your contracts or procedures say otherwise).

It is also likely to be very distressing for a worker to be accused of sexual harassment. Whilst a fair and thorough investigation will need to be carried out, accused workers should also be offered support and sensitivity. Do not assume guilt and ensure you keep an open mind until you have investigated as much as you can.

As with all disciplinary issues, you should inform the employee of the allegations against them and it may be necessary to suspend the alleged harasser on full pay during the investigation if you consider their presence in the workplace may hinder the investigation.

In many cases it will normally be one person’s word against another, which makes it difficult to investigate and reach a definitive conclusion. In this case you will need to consider the balance of probabilities and which version of events seems most credible.

Ensure that all complaints are handled consistently and in line with existing policies and procedures. Where possible ensure that the person(s) dealing with it have had some training and/or experience in these issues.

Each case should be considered on the facts of that case and taking into consideration the individual circumstances.

You will need to remember to keep the employee who complained informed of the outcome of the investigation, however the details of any disciplinary action you take are confidential between you and the accused employee and therefore you must be cautious about what information you give.

Points to Note

• Have clear standards of behaviour and ensure all staff are trained about these.
• As a minimum train your managers about sexual harassment and the Equality Act requirements.
• Never ignore a complaint, no matter who it is against.
• Investigate thoroughly.
• Keep the complainant informed throughout the process, whilst being mindful of confidentiality.
• Remember not to ignore cases of same-sex harassment or of women harassing men. It is the power relationship, not the gender that matters.

At Real Employment Law Advice, we can help with sexual harassment matters including help on updating or creating workplace sexual harassment policies, training for staff or assisting with investigations if a complaint is made.

This article was written and researched by Abigail Stiles, Business Administration Apprentice

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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