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How employers can prevent and deal with harassment

Posted by Supportis Legal Experts in HR and Employment Law

Expressions of praise or admiration in the workplace, used appropriately, can be a real motivator; whether it’s praising someone’s efforts, congratulating them or simply giving them positive feedback.

There can however be a fine line between giving a compliment and harassment, the consequences of which have the potential to be extremely costly if it results in a tribunal.

Whilst it can be nice to hear ‘you look nice today’, it isn’t always appropriate to comment in this way in the work environment.

This article takes employers through what they need to know and how to act when it comes to preventing and managing harassment in the workplace.

The Law

Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is defined as being ‘unwanted conduct relating to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’. Harassment based on age, disability, race, religion/belief, sex, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics are all covered under the law.

Individuals are protected during the recruitment process, during employment and, in some circumstances, after employment. This also includes protection against those who are a member/non-member of a trade union. Employers are liable for harassment both between employees and through a third party e.g. a customer.

If discrimination-based harassment has occurred, both employers and individuals may be ordered to pay unlimited compensation, including payment for injury to feelings.

In the case of Ms R Roberts v (1) Cash Zone (Camberley Ltd); (2) Mr J Cullen, Reading Employment Tribunal, case number 2701804/2012, Ms Roberts was referred to as ‘a kid’, ‘stroppy kid’ and ‘stroppy little teenager’ by their line manager, and was dismissed as a result of her shortcomings. The tribunal ruled that Ms Roberts was subjected to harassment on the grounds of age and was subsequently awarded with payment for injury to feelings.

What can employers do to prevent harassment?

Robust policies and guidance that clearly outlines the company’s commitment to zero tolerance on harassment and the promotion of respect in the workplace is the starting point. Ensuring managers understand and implement these policies will help embed the philosophy into the organisation. It is important to note that this may also include responsibility for things that may happen outside the workplace, for example at social events or parties.

Key items to outline in policies regarding harassment include information on:

  • The damaging effects of harassment on both the individual and wider company
  • How it will be treated as a disciplinary offence
  • The legal implications and potential personal liability
  • How to get help when being harassed
  • How to make a complaint (formal and informal)
  • Confirmation that all allegations are treated seriously, swiftly and with confidentiality
  • Clarity around the accountability of managers, and role of union and employee representatives
  • Emphasis on the responsibility of every employee for their own behaviour

Policies should be regularly reviewed and monitored to ensure effectiveness. It is also good practice to provide examples of what is deemed unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. This may include:

  • Spreading rumours
  • Insulting, ridiculing or criticising someone
  • Exclusion or victimisation
  • Unwanted physical contact
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Stopping someone’s progression by purposely blocking promotion or training opportunities

Whilst it is important for employers to have robust policies in place, employees have a responsibility themselves for adhering to them and taking action if they suspect someone is being harassed.

Complaints about harassment

When an individual makes a complaint about harassment, they must have access to someone that is trained in this role, either inside the company or an outside sponsored service. This is for both individuals that are being harassed and for those who have observed harassment. There should be no influence on the individual as to whether they wish to take their complaint further.

Informal discussions

In some situations, people may not be aware that their behaviour is perceived as harassment, and an informal discussion may be all that it takes for it to cease. It could be between the individual themselves or a supporting manager, representative, counsellor or colleague and the harasser.

Mediation

Employers and employees may mutually agree that an independent third party may help resolve the situation. This is a voluntary process for less serious complaints. This approach is more likely to be effective if both parties are aware of what mediation involves, have voluntarily opted for this approach and are looking to repair their working relationship.

Formal procedures

If informal approaches aren’t appropriate (for example, the complaint is more serious) or don’t work, formal procedures are adopted. This process should be clearly outlined in the company’s grievance and disciplinary policy.

Investigation

If a complaint results in formal action, the investigation should include:

  • Prompt and unbiased response
  • Evidence collected from any witnesses
  • Gathering both versions of events
  • A realistic but prompt timescale
  • Confidentiality

All of this should be recorded, including names of those involved, dates, the incident(s), what’s being done about it and if there is any follow-up or monitoring. All of which should all be kept confidential under data protection law.

Action

If a complaint is unresolved, it may require the relocation of one of the parties. Contract terms and conditions must be considered as if it is breached, there may be a claim for constructive unfair dismissal.

Do you need to create policies that help prevent harassment? Are you going through a harassment claim and could do with some advice? We can help! Get in touch today on 0161 603 2156 or email hello@supportis.com.

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