How to Deal with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Image Credit: Andrew Stawarz; No Expression Exchanged

Sexual harassment is a deeply serious and unpleasant issue that, unfortunately, does happen in the workplace. It’s equally important that harassment complaints are dealt with effectively as it is that the affected employee speaks out about what they’re experiencing. Sexual harassment is a difficult issue to address, since it can be subjective – many people have different opinions of what does and doesn’t constitute harassment. It’s therefore essential that any claim is taken seriously, and each individual involved is treated with equal respect.

Sexual harassment can be defined as unwanted conduct that is of a sexual nature, that has the specific intention or effect of violating a worker. If an employer hears of any sexual misconduct or suspects of any, it is their legal and ethical duty to investigate the claims thoroughly. It’s important to remember that no matter how plausible an employee’s claim may seem, that you, as an employer, take them for their word.

Acts of sexual harassment include any unwanted physical contact and sexual assault that may be imposed on an individual. It also involves any other method of sexual reference if it is unwelcome or causes offence. This can include written or verbal comments about an employee’s physical characteristics and e-mails that include content of a sexual nature. In addition to complaints made from the individual themselves, any reports made to HR by an employee’s friends/family or a witness should also be investigated.

If a sexual harassment issue arises, there are certain steps that every employer should take. Firstly, it’s important to ensure that employees are well informed of the sexual harassment policies that should be adhered to in your work place. You should also ensure that every employee has the opportunity to make formal complaints in a variety of ways – whether that’s visiting the HR office or speaking to a member of management.

When it’s become clear that an investigation is necessary, the first step is to plan. The investigation needs to include and cover everybody involved and all relevant situations. When beginning the investigation, communication is vital. Make sure to arrange a sit-down meeting with the employee who made the allegations and reassure them that their comments will be kept confidential. Make sure to listen when the employee tells their side of the story and reassure them that their complaint has been filed – and no further unacceptable behaviour will be tolerated. It’s also important to ask him/her at this point to inform you of any further problems that arise. The investigation should also involve any witnesses, so set aside time to interview them – asking open questions that will require more detailed responses. This is your opportunity to gain facts from an outsider’s perspective.

The investigation should also involve an interview with the accused employee, and this should be approached with equal respect. You should also reassure him/her that a fair investigation will take place.

Once the investigation has been conducted, you should then attempt to reach a decision based on all of the information that you have collected. Following up the issue is also important in ensuring that no further incidents occur – and this includes following up with any wrongly accused employees. Moving forward, it’s a good idea to shift the working environment around as necessary to ensure comfort for all workers.

If you have any queries about sexual harassment issues or policies in your workplace, please do get in touch with us via email [email protected] or call 01386 751740.