Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein used to be famous for blockbuster films. Instead, now the Weinstein Effect is putting workplace sexual harassment policies in the spotlight.
In 2017, after years of rumours of predatory sexual behaviour some of his accusers went public in response to a NY Times investigation. In February 2020, after a lengthy trial, the movie mogul was handed a 23 year jail sentence. He could have escaped with a 5 year term, but the pattern of previous behaviour meant the Judge felt compelled to impose the maximum he could.
Arguably, more importantly, it drove the creation of the #MetToo campaign. This gave women the courage to come forward and say that they were subject sexual harassment.
How #MeToo has impacted on sexual harassment reporting
Weinstein was not the first prominent figure jailed in the #MeToo era, as in 2018 Bill Cosby was jailed for 10 years for sexual assault. And now a number of others in positions of power and influence face similar fates. This is commonly referred to as the 'Weinstein effect'.
Every business has the potential for problems with inappropriate employee behaviour. What has changed is the confidence and willingness of employees to speak up about it.
Back in 2016, the EEOC published a workplace harassment report. Shockingly, it showed that three out of four victims of harassment didn't discuss it with anyone.
In the year following the revelations, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) saw a 14% increase in sexual harassment complaints. Doesn't sound like a steep rise? Well, in 2016 the number was 15 per cent lower that it was six years previously.
Clearly, times have changed, and importantly these high profile cases referred to historic inappropriate behaviour. So, while you may be confident that such behaviour is not happening now - that does not prevent historic allegations arising.
Sexual harassment and the Equality Act 2010
For businesses in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 provides a degree of clarity in terms of the rights of those who believe they’ve been harassed - and those they’re accusing of harassment.
The Act defines harassment as “…behaviour which causes alarm or distress”. In the context of sexual harassment, this is specifically defined as behaviour which either violates an individual’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. If it doesn’t actually do so, a person can be in breach if their behaviour is intended to cause any of these reactions.
This is a serious matter, given that harassment is classed as a form of discrimination under the Act. The Act also imposes a duty on employers to ensure such behaviour is stopped when it has been clearly identified. Failure to do this effectively may end in an employment tribunal claim, unless the employer can demonstrate they took reasonable steps to prevent harassment.
It's important to be able respond to allegations quickly, sympathetically and impartially - no matter how senior a position of the accused individual. You need a sexual harassment policy.
Key elements of a workplace harassment policy
- Your position on harassment – A clear statement that harassment of any description will not be tolerated and disciplinary action will be taken against anyone who’s found guilty of such behaviour towards a colleague. A clear statement such as this should serve its purpose to a certain degree as a deterrent.
- Clear procedures for raising claims – employees must understand firstly how they can raise concerns and then the steps you’ll take once an accusation has been raised. Also, the sorts of evidence that they should look to gather if they believe harassment is taking place.
- The degree of support that individuals will receive if a claim is made - for example, the right to union representation, HR representation, or any independent support or counselling services that employees may have access to.
- The possible consequences for the person accused of harassment – what could happen if they’re found guilty, but also for the person bringing the claim if this is found to be malicious or not in good faith.
Remember that to ensure compliance you employees need to be aware of your workplace harassment policy, and understand what constitutes harassment. If you do not, then be prepared for severe financial and reputational consequences.
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