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Sexual harassment - what small and medium businesses need to know

what small business's need to know about sexual harassment

As more revelations of sexual harassment continue to emerge within both the entertainment industry and parliament, what do small and medium businesses need to know and do?

First thing to be clear on, as an employer regardless of your size, under the Equality Act 2010 you are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment (including sexual harassment) in the workplace and for making clear it won't be tolerated.

Furthermore, you can be vicariously liable for the action of your employees if you have not taken steps to prevent harassment in the workplace (for example not having a policy in place).

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined in law by unwanted conduct (related to gender) which:

  • violates a person’s dignity

  • creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual

What can constitute sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment may involve single or repeated incidents ranging from extreme forms to more subtle forms. It may include, but is not limited to

  • unwanted physical contact

  • unwelcome remarks about a person’s appearance, offensive language or suggestive remarks

  • display of posters, graffiti, or obscene gestures of a sexual nature

  • coercion for sexual favours

A perpetrator’s claim that a comment or action was meant in jest or as a compliment is not a defence in a sexual harassment case and the harassment doesn’t have to be directed at the person complaining about it.

Just a bit of banter?

In the first ever study of its kind, in 2016 the TUC conducted research that found:

  • 52% of all women had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work.

  • 32% of women had been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature at work.

  • 28% of women had been subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes

  • 25% of women had experienced unwanted touching (such as a hand on the knee or lower back).

  • 20% of women had experienced unwanted sexual advances at work.

They also found that those on zero-hours contracts, doing precarious work or agency or hospitality work, are far more likely to be the object of sexual harassment in the workplace than those in steadier work.

The report highlights the serious professional, financial and psychological impact of sexual harassment.

Who can be sexually harassed?

Although the TUC study focused on women, of course it is not just women who can be subject to sexual harassment, anybody can be the victim of sexual harassment and anybody can be the perpetrator.

What action should small business employers take?

1. Put a policy in place

An employer’s first responsibility is to put in place a robust policy that clearly outlines the business’s commitment to promoting dignity and respect at work. Don’t forget employers’ responsibilities may extend to any environment where work-related activities take place including work parties or outings.

2. Develop a culture of respect

Dealing with bullying and harassment doesn’t stop with the introduction of formal policies and practices. It is important to promote a positive culture based on personal respect and dignity. Induct and train all employees on their rights and responsibilities under the harassment policy, inform them of where they can get support and ensure all leaders lead by example.

3. Deal with any complaints seriously and promptly

You must take any complaint seriously and investigate promptly. It is a fundamental employment right that no-one should suffer harassment. If it occurs, and you do not handle it appropriately, your company can vicariously liable and may be exposed to the risk of financial and reputational damage, alongside the suffering of the victim.

We can help

For help and advice on handling a sexual harassment complaint appropriately, or improving workplace culture to minimise the risk of sexual harassment occurring, contact Improve HR, or find us via our website

To see more information on the TUC research, follow this link

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