One of the biggest news stories recently has been about film producer Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, being disgraced and humiliated by being sacked by his own company amid a slew of sexual harassment allegations that reportedly date back decades.
The story has sent shock waves through the film industry, with many female stars now coming out of the woodwork and speaking of their abuse by him too. There have now been a number of allegations against Weinstein, some reports saying that he had reached at least eight settlements with women over the years in order to keep them quiet.
Although we don’t know the exact series of events that led to Weinstein’s dismissal, it is clear from the press that allegations of sexual harassment played their part and it is reported that these occurrences happened for several years without being actioned.
Since Weinstein, there has been a watershed moment for sexual harassment issues to come out into the mainstream spotlight, women being prepared to speak out regardless of the effect on their career etc and so there have now been other film stars and politicians who have admitted to inappropriate behaviour. I dare say some high profile people may be quaking in their boots right now if they may have done something in the past, that they now regret.
Thinking about the issues in a workplace context re harassment and cover ups and so on, it serves as a good reminder to employers of their legal responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010.
The Equality Act 2010 definition: “Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”
So, this covers indecent or suggestive remarks, unwanted touching, requests or demands for sex, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic images, or sending emails of a sexual nature.
Bear in mind also that even a one-off act can amount to harassment.
Why should employers care?
An employer could be liable for any acts of sexual harassment by its employees if committed in the course of employment. An employer can also be held responsible for acts of sexual harassment that are committed by third parties, such as contractors or customers.
In many cases, the first time an employer will learn of an allegation of sexual harassment in the workplace, is after it has occurred. This may be triggered by the employee raising a grievance or taking sick leave or even resigning from employment. This is when the employment relationship begins to break and could result in a costly tribunal claim.
The good news is that there is a defence to such a claim IF the employer can demonstrate that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment.
What steps could be taken?
It’s not a legal requirement but ideally all employers should have an Equal Opportunities and Dignity at Work/ Harassment Policy. This is a statement of intent that all employees will be treated with dignity and respect by the organisation and its procedures. This should be communicated from day 1 e.g. in an induction and all Line Managers trained on it.
In addition, as a very minimum and they are legal requirement, all employers should have clear Grievance and Disciplinary Policies – either as stand-alone policies or included in their employment handbook. These will explain the mechanics of how an employee who is concerned about the behaviour of colleagues can register their worries.
However, such documents are not enough – it also comes down to the culture of the workplace and staff having the trust and faith in management to tackle promptly and professionally any concerns. Whether the concerns are minor or major, if the staff feel they can, and should, without fear of reprisal or cover up, report any incident they feel is not appropriate then it provides the employer with an opportunity to address it at an early stage and avoid the situation becoming more serious.
The staff must trust that if they raise sensitive concerns these will be dealt with in a sensitive and supportive manner. There should not exist any suspicion, or belief from past experience, that allegations will be ignored or parked in an admin dead end. Employees do not want to be judged as having no sense of humour if they raise a concern about the ‘banter’ of a popular or more senior or supposed ‘powerful’ colleague. Addressing and resolving any issues in a sensitive and prompt manner will maintain staff morale and loyalty, maintain what’s called the “psychological contract” as well as avoid unnecessary hassle e.g. long-term sickness absence of the ‘victim’, higher turnover of staff, difficulties recruiting, possible legal costs and dismissals to contend with etc.
Of course, it can be tempting for an employer to cover up unlawful behaviour by a key member of staff who is the alleged perpetrator. The short-termism view of the need to keep a so-called key member of staff onside is sometimes weighed against the legal requirement to comply with equality legislation, and often the latter is often deemed to be of lesser importance. The need to retain a socially unacceptable individual is placed above the employer’s reputation (internally and externally) and fall out, should the behaviour be exposed in public.
Where such unacceptable behaviours become almost an accepted ‘norm’ and it happens more than once then the employer needs to look to the cause of the problem and deal with it ASAP – cover ups won’t cut the mustard any longer. Due to social media things get out very quickly nowadays. To cover up, excuse or not address matters could lead to more hassle in the long run, with the bad publicity and legal costs to address any claims. It doesn’t matter how key or influential the alleged perpetrator may be to an organisation, they cannot and should not be allowed to be deemed more important than the negative reputational impact of the employer’s name becoming a meme for sexual harassment.
The upshot is — try to AVOID a Weinstein scenario in your organisation at all costs, otherwise it could harm your business in more ways than one.
- Ensure you have the right polices in place
- Train your staff
- Establish, or maintain, an open door, transparent, trusting workplace
- Address any concerns promptly and professionally
- Don’t cover up any alleged perpetrator or incident – think of the possible downsides if you do
If you need help or advice about anything related to these issues, please just get in touch.