Opinion

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

23rd February 2018

MPs have launched an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace. The purpose of the inquiry is to establish whether employers and the government could take more action to protect their employees from sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Women and Equalities Committee will look at how widespread sexual harassment is in the workplace; who experiences it; who perpetrates it and what employers and the government can do.

The inquiry also looks into the advantages and disadvantages of using non-disclosure agreements in these type of cases and how to prevent their misuse.

Background

Research suggests that more than 40% of women and more than 20% of men have experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. Women aged between 18-34 are most at risk of sexual harassment with 43% having experienced it. (ComRes poll for the BBS).

Neil Carberry, Managing Director of People and Infrastructure at the CBI, thinks there is a lot that businesses can be doing, stating that: “We are looking for clear approaches, policies being well communicated and creating an environment where reporting is encouraged. It is still too male at senior levels.”

Whilst there is accountability on employers to prevent sexual harassment and to deal with any situations, there should also be some emphasis placed on the reporting of incidents from employees.

Christine Payne, General Secretary of Equitystates that: “(Employers) really have to create a space, a safe working environment, where workers feel confident that they can report and that, when they do report, it will be taken seriously and properly investigated.

It is a two pronged approach according to Ms Payne: “…making employers realise, accept and step up to the mark of what their responsibilities and duties of care are… equally it is getting the workers to feel confident and empowered that they can come forward”.

Employers will therefore need to take any reported cases seriously. It is not for them to dismiss them as being too minor as it all depends on how it affects the employee on an individual basis. This is something that needs to be communicated to employees in order to encourage them to report any incidents, no matter how minor they may seem.

Non-disclosure

Sexual harassment claims are sometimes settled by way of settlement agreements or pay-outs. These agreements can also include a non-disclosure agreement. The use of NDAs came under scrutiny last month after women working at the Presidents Club charity gala were asked to sign a contract, without the opportunity to review its contents. Unfortunately it seems that employees who sign these agreements are unaware of claims they are still able to pursue.

Employees can feel pressured into signing the agreements there and then and do not feel able to take some time to seek advice - something employers need to be aware.

Christine Payne continues “If they are being presented with a contract that they do not understand or that it is very last minute, we would always advise our members not to sign it, take it back and have a look at it, and get advice.”

Employer Considerations

It seems that whilst there is an emphasis on employers having to create an environment in which their employees feel able to report any incidents and that they are taken seriously, there also needs to be a balance struck whereby the employee needs to actively report incidents.

Employers could ensure that they have a confidential reporting system, and that the employees are aware of this and how it can be accessed.

Employers should also ensure that they have clear policies in place in respect of sexual harassment and that such policies create an environment in which employees feel ready and able to report any such incidents.

 

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