The #MeToo movement, fronted by Emma Watson, led to an outpour of historical revelations as it saw millions of women share their stories of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, especially in the workplace. The BBC conducted a survey which reported that 50% of women experienced sexual harassment at work.
The movement has encouraged many to tackle the issue, such as the Rights of Women (RoW) charity who recently launched a new Sexual Harassment at Work legal advice line. The advice will be provided by RoW legal staff and volunteer women employment lawyers to support women who experience sexual harassment at work. The advice will include:-
- What behaviour amounts to sexual harassment
- How to raise a grievance
- How to bring a claim to the Employment Tribunal
- Advice on settlement agreements and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)
- Other legal problems faced by women experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.
The government has also recently revealed plans to tackle the misuse of NDAs. Under the proposed legislation, organisations will be prevented from deploying NDAs to cover up incidents of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and assault. This means that employees will not be ‘gagged’ when it comes to disclosing information to the police, regulated health and care professionals or legal professionals included lawyers. Employers will also bare the responsibility to make clear the limitations of a confidentiality clause in a NDA so employees are aware of their rights. Any such clause in a settlement agreement that does not conform to the new legislation will be legally void.
Despite the main purposes behind the advice line to empower those going through harassment at work through knowledge and the amount of media coverage, there are still many misconceptions:-
- One-off events – some hold the view that sexual harassment has to occur more than once. However, a single act can be sufficient to amount to sexual harassment.
- Banter – many people use the justification of ‘banter’ for sexual harassment. However, it is a subjective test to consider whether the victim considers the treatment to be offensive.
- It happened outside of the office – employees’ behaviour can be deemed as ‘conduct during the course of employment’ and can apply to after-work drinks, client engagements, work-related events and parties.
- Men can’t be harassed – some consider that the #MeToo campaign creates the illusion that only female employees can be harassed. However, it must be emphasised that anyone can be harassed by people of the same or opposite sex.
Under no circumstances can sexual harassment be tolerated in the workplace. However, we are a big believer in preventative measures more so than response. After the event, the damage is done and the potential fall-out can be wide-reaching, including legal claims and reputational damage.
Therefore, it is important to have robust policies in place that both promotes the organisations commitment to dignity and respect at the workplace and also provide redress for the victims and a framework for managers to ensure compliance, such as disciplinary action.
However, a robust policy in itself does not work and so organisations must ensure that training and understanding of the issues is provided regularly to create/maintain a positive working culture that celebrates diversity in the workplace. This, in turn, will ensure that individuals are comfortable with bringing complaints and confident that they will be supported without fear of ridicule or reprisal. Whenever a complaint is made, they should be dealt with promptly and confidentially.
In the event that the matter cannot be resolved and requires a settlement agreement, make sure that it conforms to the new legislation, when in force.
If you have any concerns about the culture of your workplace or consider that you would benefit from relevant documentation, do not hesitate to contact one of our employment team.