Ending Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Posted by

Martyn Oughton

on 04 Apr 2022

Workplace sexual harassment policies achieved global prominence through Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign. Has your company learned the lessons?

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
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.

Putting an end to sexual harassment at work

What is the Weinstein Effect?

In February 2020, after a lengthy trial, Hollywood movie producer Weinstein was handed a 23-year jail sentence for his predatory sexual behaviour. He could have escaped with a 5-year term, but the previous behaviour meant the Judge felt compelled to impose the maximum he could. The #MeToo campaign gained momentum and then gave women the support and encouragement to share their own experiences of sexual harassment.

The #MeToo movement led to 6 other convictions and five charges of prominent and influential figures in what is now known as the 'Weinstein Effect'.

  • Nxivm cult leader Keith Raniere - A Brooklyn federal court sentenced him to 120 years in prison on Oct. 27, after his conviction in June 2019 of sex trafficking, conspiracy, sexual exploitation of a child, racketeering, forced labour and possession of child pornography.
  • Actress Allison Mack - Pleaded guilty in April 2019 to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges for recruiting women to the sex cult, Nxivm.
  • Comedian Bill Cosby - In 2018, he was found guilty of 3 counts of aggravated assault for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004. His sentence was 3–10 years in state prison, which he is currently serving. Cosby appealed the conviction in late June.
  • French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault - In 2018, he was put in jail for a rape in 2011.
  • USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar - In 2018, he was found guilty on 3 counts of sexual assault and sentenced for up to 125 years. More than 260 girls and women claimed Nassar abused them.
  • Former Michigan State University dean William Strampel - Found guilty on 2 counts of "wilful neglect of duty" and 1 count of felony misconduct relating to the Nassar case (Strampel was Nassar's boss). He received a concurrent sentence of 1 year in August 2019.

#MeToo Has Impacted Sexual Harassment Reporting

According to the TUC, 7 in 10 (68%) people think the #MeToo movement has allowed people to be more open about sexual harassment. This number is highest amongst women (72%) and young people (78%).

However, the TUC also says that despite higher levels of awareness, cases of sexual harassment remain alarmingly high. Their research found that more than half (52%) of women – and nearly two-thirds (63%) of young women aged 18-24 years old – have experienced sexual harassment at work.

The pandemic has also seen almost half of women subjected to sexual harassment while working remotely. According to a recent poll conducted by Rights of Women for The Independent, over 40% of victims say they experienced some form of misconduct online.

Free Sexual Harassment Training Module

Sexual Harassment and the Equality Act 2010

For businesses in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 clarifies the rights of those who believe they've encountered harassment. It also clarifies the rights of those they're accusing of harassment.

The Act defines harassment as "…behaviour which causes alarm or distress". In a sexual harassment context, this is specifically defined as behaviour that either violates an individual's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. A person can be in breach if their behaviour intends to cause these reactions.

This behaviour is a serious matter, given that harassment is discrimination under the Act. The Act also imposes a duty on employers to stop such behaviour when 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 respond to allegations quickly, sympathetically and impartially - no matter how senior the position of the accused individual. You need a sexual harassment policy.

Key Elements of a Sexual Harassment Policy

  • Your position on harassment – this is a clear statement that the company will not tolerate harassment and will take disciplinary action against anyone who's found guilty of such behaviour towards a colleague. A statement such as this should serve its purpose to a certain degree as a deterrent.
  • Clear procedures for raising claims – firstly, employees must understand how they can raise concerns and the steps you'll take. Also, they should look to gather the sorts of evidence they believe harassment is taking place.
  • The degree of support 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 – this covers what could happen if they're found guilty, but also for the person bringing the claim if this is indeed found to be malicious or not in good faith.

Remember that your employees need to be aware of your workplace harassment policy and understand what constitutes harassment to ensure compliance. If you do not, be prepared for severe financial and reputational consequences.

Sexual Harassment Training Module

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