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Harassment in the workplace - Employers should adopt a zero tolerance approach

By Shazia Shah, Senior Associate.

Some people may say that these comments are just 'banter’ and are not meant to upset anyone, but if an employee feels they are being targeted because of their sex and if this makes them feel intimidated, humiliated or offended, then this behaviour can be defined as harassment which is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

Harassment in the workplace largely reflects power imbalances based on gender and is part of a spectrum of disrespect and inequality that women face all the time in the workplace and everyday life.

Sexual harassment is any sexual behaviour that is unwanted, offensive, and that makes the victim feel uncomfortable, intimidated, humiliated or scared. It can cover a huge range of behaviours including the verbal harassment in this case – e.g. sexual comments, emails, jokes or photos (“honey”, “love”, “darling”, “sweetie”) as well as physical harassment: e.g. unwanted touching, kissing and sexual assault.

What is inappropriate behaviour will be perceived differently by everyone, but the key factor is how it makes the victim feel. If the behaviour is sexual in nature, unwelcome and makes the victim feel offended or intimidated, it is wrong. If the victim challenges or reports the sexual harassment and are then treated badly, this is also wrong. It is categorised as a type of unlawful harassment. Everyone has the right to feel comfortable and safe while they are at work.

Many employers will have a staff handbook which sets out what their policies are in relation to the types of behaviour which are expected at work, as well as those that are unacceptable, it should also set out what happens when problems arise and complaints are made.

If an employee raises any complaint then an employer should take it seriously. The employer should make sure that they fully understand the complaint and how best to handle it before starting any investigation. This is especially important where allegations have been made of harassment.

Employers should consider at an early stage what help and support they can offer to the victim, including counselling. Depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary for the harasser to be suspended from work while any investigation is carried out. This will involve interviewing all the relevant witnesses to the complaint and taking statements from them.

Getting the process wrong can be costly for the employer, because they are likely to have to pay considerable costs in defending any legal claims - both in legal costs and the management time lost, plus the compensation awarded by a judge if the employer loses the case.

Employers should adopt a zero tolerance approach in these situations and make it clear that comments like this are completely unacceptable.

A funeral home manager who was sacked after referring to a female colleague as ‘honey’ and ‘babe’ has lost a sex discrimination case after claiming it was the same as calling a male co-worker ‘mate’.

The ruling emerged from a case brought by Mike Hartley, who was sacked from Blackpool firm D Hollowell & Sons for making ‘very inappropriate’ and ‘insulting’ comments to young women he worked with.

A panel heard he uttered a series of sexually suggestive remarks to colleague Rachel Anderton while calling her pet names such as ‘honey’, ‘babe’ and ‘chick’.”