D-BRIEF – Employment & Pensions Blog: Sexual Harassment in the workplace

Kamahl Santamaria, a longstanding television journalist, was recently removed from a new broadcasting role after just 32 days amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Further accusations then surfaced arising out of his previous role at Al Jazeera tv with many of Al Jazeera’s employees alleging that the company fosters a toxic work culture where allegations of harassment, sexism and racism go largely unaddressed, that the company ignores policies and adopts a “culture of forgiving behaviour.” As well as having an obvious impact on the employees themselves, this has resulted in huge public relations headache for Al Jazeera.

These allegations serve as a useful reminder to all employers of the importance of ensuring their employees can carry out their work free from harassment, and the importance of ensuring that those who experience harassment are able to report it without fear of repercussion.

In July 2021 the Government announced its intention to create a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Whilst this duty has not been implemented into law yet, it suggests the Government believes employers should be doing more to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. It is therefore advisable for employers to keep their approach to protecting employees under review, and where appropriate to make improvements in their processes.

What can employers do to protect their employees?

It is advisable for all employers to have an effective policy in place outlining their zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment at work. Some individuals try and explain away their behaviour as only being a ‘joke,’ ‘just banter’ or that they were ‘only being friendly,’ which highlights the importance of employees being given regularly updated harassment training and ensuring the company policy gives examples of the type of behaviour that could constitute sexual harassment.

Whilst employers should try and avoid sexual harassment from taking place in the first place, it is equally important to have clear processes in place to ensure employees know how (and to who) they can raise complaints of sexual harassment and feel comfortable doing so.

It is also important that managers are given appropriate training in how to manage allegations of sexual harassment. In addition to helping the manager address the situation quickly and effectively, the training will help ensure the complainant is provided with the proper support and is not subjected to any victimisation. It will also ensure managers are aware of any practical considerations that need to be taken into account, for example whether arrangements need to be put into place to ensure that the complainant and the alleged perpetrator do not continue to work together whilst the investigation is carried out.

Employers could also consider appointing a senior person to monitor harassment issues, oversee training and offer support to employees suffering from harassment. The EHRC guide recommends employers appoint workplace champions or guardians for this purpose.

Sexual harassment investigations can more complicated than a standard grievance investigation. For example, the investigator may have to manage reluctant witnesses, requests for anonymity, and in more serious cases police involvement. Employers may therefore wish to consider offering specialist training to those within the organisation who may be asked to investigate this type of grievance.

If you have any queries arising in relation to sexual harassment in the workplace or any other potential claims under the Equality Act 2010, please contact a member of the Employment Team.

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