Ending Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Posted by

Martyn Oughton

on 03 Feb 2021

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

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 pattern of previous behaviour meant the Judge felt compelled to impose the maximum he could. The #MeToo campaign that gained momentum then gave women the support and encouragement to share their own experiences of sexual harassment.

The #MeToo movement led to 6 other convictions and 5 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 he was convicted 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 on 3 counts of aggravated assault for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004. He was sentenced to 3–10 years in state prison, which he is currently serving. Cosby appealed the conviction in late June.
  • French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault - Jailed in 2018 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

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.

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 being 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 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 Sexual 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.

Sexual Harassment Training Module

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