Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, Tips for Employers

Recent media coverage of workplace sexual harassment that sexual harassment in the workplace has not gone away.  

From allegations of widespread sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in McDonalds UK earlier in the year to sexual harassment in the Gardai, in healthcare, in the hospitality sector, in schools and on and on, the picture seems to be bleak.

Examples from Recent Sexual Misconduct Investigations 

Our investigators in sexual misconduct investigations could give long lists of examples complained about. Examples include:

  • a male colleague standing up close behind a female colleague, body parts touching
  • a male colleague tapping a female colleague on the bum
  • a male colleague touching his hand up a female colleagues skirt
  • a female colleague sending whatsapp messages wondering if the male colleague is in his PJ’s
  • a female colleague telling a male colleague on whatsapp that she was ‘red hot’ and lying naked on the sofa
  • a male colleague kissing a female colleague on the cheek
  • a male colleague sending messages to a female colleague describing himself as ‘horny’, etc.

Our investigators have ‘seen it all’, but nevertheless  remain surprised, and shocked at the amount of inappropriate behaviour still happening in the workplace. They are quite often saddened for the people concerned, both the recipient of this awful behaviour but also the person complained about and our investigators often ask ‘how did they ever think this behaviour was ok?’ 

What Steps Must Employers Take?

The various Codes of Practice and legislation places an obligation on employers to take all reasonable steps to ensure a harassment-free environment.  It’s a tall order, so what should the employer do?

The best-practices are to:

  • ensure all staff have had a short briefing / webinar on Cultivating Respect and Dignity at Work to include education for employees on bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, what it is and what it isn’t, examples and what to do if the employee is affected by it directly or indirectly as they observe it in the workplace, as well as being introduced to the policy
  • ensure all managers have had a short briefing / webinar on Cultivating Respect and Dignity at Work from a managers perspective

This should be in addition to:

  • having a policy
  • communicating the policy to all existing and new employees
  • ensuring an audit trail exists to capture such communications or preferably everyone has signed an acknowledgement electronically or on paper that they have received the policy
  • providing a forum for employees to ask questions
  • and providing short training / webinar as above.

Workplace Banter

Workplace banter that spills into the sexual arena, all supposedly in the name of ‘craic’ and ‘banter’ should not be allowed to exist in the workplace.

We have seen many ‘best friends’ in work who share such ‘banter’ but when their relationship breaks down and they are no longer on good terms, it is not unusual to see claim and counter claim about what was said, joked about, written in whatsapp and so on.

Customers / Suppliers / Students / Friends

We have seen lecturers claim for sexual harassment against students, employees claim for sexual harassment against customers, employees against former best friends at work, work colleagues whose private and personal relationship has broken up claim against each other.

Employers have a difficult and challenging task to prevent such claims. 

Managing the workplace investigations that follow is another challenging task.

Flawed Investigations

The bar for investigations in terms of procedure being followed gets ever higher and higher. Many cases in the courts turn on the investigation process, not the merits of the cases per se.

Investigations are often deemed flawed by the WRC and other courts.

In a recent An Post case, the mishandling of the harassment investigation was costly. On the other hand, in a recent RTE case, their handling of the complaint was considered very strong and the complainant did not succeed in their claim for in excess of €300k.

Both these cases illustrate that when investigations are done well, the employer can defend itself well (not that it wants to be in this place) and when done poorly they are very costly in terms of time, money and reputation for the employer.

Next Steps

If you are responsible for overseeing the implementation of training for employees and managers in your organisation, our short in-company webinars on Cultivating Respect and Dignity in the Workplace for employees and separately for managers will ensure you have good practices in place to prevent sexual harassment in the first place and to manage it early and effectively where it occurs.

Click here to view our in-company course on Cultivating Respect and Dignity at Work.

If you are responsible for organising workplace investigations, our in-company course on Workplace Investigations is a must for any HR Practitioner or Manager tasked with conducting a workplace investigation.

Click here to view our in-company course on Workplace Investigations.

If you need to organise an independent third-party workplace investigation, contact us at enquiries@collierbroderick.ie and our experienced team of investigators will be able to help you.