The tide is turning. High profile cases of sexual harassment, publicised by the mainstream media and social media campaigns such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, show that harassment is increasingly considered unacceptable in modern society.
Although harassment in the workplace has been prohibited by law for many years, it seems that women (and it is mainly, albeit not exclusively, women) now have the confidence to complain. This empowerment means that employers need to be ready to deal with the fallout: an increasing volume of sexual harassment allegations. By considering these key areas, women in senior management positions can be well-placed to deal with such accusations in the workplace.
1. Ensure that appropriate policies and support are available to employees
From a management perspective, it is far better if an allegation is raised internally. Allegations made anonymously (for example, via a website such as the proposed AllVoices.com) or publicly on social media pose particular issues, including the potential difficulty in obtaining evidence; and the risks of conducting an investigation in the public glare.
Employers should therefore be encouraging employees who face harassment to raise these issues internally and, in order to do so, employees should be provided with an appropriate forum and procedure. At the very least, a clear policy outlining the employer’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to harassment should be in place in all organisations.
But a written policy on its own is not enough: an employee also needs to have confidence that her employer will do the right thing. She needs to be confident that the issue will be dealt with sensitively; that the employer will investigate fully and take action that is reasonable and fair in the circumstances; and that she will not be victimised or otherwise be retaliated against as a result of making the complaint.
Most importantly, senior women in all organisations have a critical role in fostering an environment where harassment is not tolerated.
2. When dealing with an allegation…
Don’t ignore it:When an employee alleges that she has been harassed by a colleague, the temptation may be (and past practice may have been) to silence the complainant, perhaps with a generous pay out in return for their keeping the matter confidential. But this does not address the underlying issue and, notwithstanding a gagging clause in any settlement, the complainant could still make allegations in a public forum, for example by posting on social media. Fundamentally, this approach shifts the blame from the perpetrator to the recipient, absolving the perpetrator from guilt. This is not right. An allegation of harassment should be dealt with fairly and properly because this is the right thing to do. To do otherwise could also have serious repercussions for the employer’s reputation.
Don’t discount historic complaints: Just because a complaint is raised sometime after the event does not mean that the recipient is merely reacting to current publicity or making a false allegation. Jumping to either of these conclusions is again a way of trying to shift the blame to the recipient. It may be that current events have simply given the recipient the courage to take a stand. It should not be underestimated how daunting it was (and still is) to make such a complaint, particularly where the ‘boys will be boys’ culture still has some adherents (consider, for example, the events at the Presidents’ Club). Even if the recipient is out of time to bring a claim before an employment tribunal (the time limit is three months from the event), the allegation should still be investigated and appropriate action taken.
As to whether an allegation is ‘false’ or not, a distinction should be drawn between a ‘false’ allegation (i.e., one made with malicious intent) and one that is subsequently found to be unsubstantiated. Statistics in the UK, the US and the EU show that very few ‘false’ allegations of sexual assault are made. The evidence should be considered first before making any judgment as to the veracity of the allegation.
3. Consider whether further action is required
Following the investigation, the employer needs to consider what steps to take in relation to the perpetrator and whether he (or she) should be subject to disciplinary action. But don’t forget the needs of the recipient – would the offer of counselling help? If the substance of the complaint is particularly serious it may be appropriate also to report this to the police.
The foundations for eradicating harassment have been laid: employers need to build on this and take positive steps to ensuring that all employees can expect a harassment free workplace. All employees should be aware of both their rights and responsibilities in this respect – by fostering an environment where all employees are treated with respect, no matter their status, gender, ethnicity or sexuality, we all move one step closer to a society free from harassment.