Sexual harassment - employer obligations

Sexual harassment involves unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the recipient.

Conduct in this context can be any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Conduct of a sexual nature can include unwelcome sexual advances, touching, forms of sexual assault, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings or sending e-mails with material of a sexual nature.



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What are my obligations as an employer?

Employers are legally responsible for acts of harassment carried out by employees in the course of their employment.

However, employers have a defence to a claim for harassment if they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from carrying out the act or acts.

It is important to note that employers will also be liable for persistent harassment of their employees by third parties, provided certain conditions are satisfied. Liability only arises if the employee has been subjected to third party harassment on at least two previous occasions and the employer is aware that it has taken place and has failed to take reasonable practicable steps to avoid it.

The way in which an employer deals with harassment (whether by a third party or otherwise) once it has occurred can itself amount to harassment if the employer’s actions are responsible for creating a hostile environment.

What is a sexual harassment claim worth?

It is unlikely that an employee who has been the victim of sexual harassment will have suffered financial loss as a direct result of the harassment – unless the employee has resigned or been dismissed as a result. The bulk of compensation awards for harassment are usually made up of payments for injury to feelings, which is calculated by reference to the ‘Vento Guidelines’.

Tribunals can award: between £25,200 and £42,000 in the most serious cases of harassment; between £8,400 and £25,200 in cases which are serious but do not fall into the top band and between £800 and £8,400 in less serious cases of harassment.

Practical steps to reduce risk

Employers need to take any potential harassment seriously. The safest approach is therefore to ensure that anything which might be construed as sexual harassment (rude jokes, rude emails, pictures of scantily-clad models etc) is not permitted.

An employer should therefore:

  1. Provide staff with an employment handbook, which includes policies on equal opportunities and harassment, setting out what constitutes acceptable behaviour and what does not
  2. Provide training on equal opportunities and harassment. This will raise awareness and may help managers to recognise and address with sexual harassment at an early stage
  3. Address any potential sexual harassment issues promptly and seriously

If you require assistance in drafting appropriate policies and procedures to reduce your company’s exposure to such claims, or you would like the policies you currently have in place to be reviewed, do not hesitate to contact a member of our employment team on 0203 816 9302

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