Given the recent coverage of the #metoo campaign it’s easy to assume that the perpetrators of sexual harassment are always men. But that’s not the case, and HR professionals need to ensure they are even-handed about any allegations, regardless of gender.
Recent high profile allegations of sexual harassment in the showbusiness and political world have left many businesses with the wrong impression on how to handle such allegations.
It’s led some to believe that it’s fine to ‘remove’ an alleged male perpetrator before they’ve had the opportunity of answering the allegations. It’s also given the impression that the perpetrator is often the man… but men can be victims too.
The stereotype of workplace sexual harassment is of a senior male, propositioning, making lewd jokes or inappropriately touching a junior female employee.
But while the majority of sexual harassment claims involve women making allegations against men, a significant number of claims involve men harassing other men, or women harassing men.
At the core of sexual harassment is an abuse of power and as women climb the career ladder they too can abuse their power and seniority with men as victims.
Fear of embarrassment
In the US nearly one in five of sexual harassment complaints at work were filed by men with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In the UK, a BBC Radio 5 survey found 20% of men questioned said they had experienced sexual harassment, ranging from inappropriate comments to actual sexual assaults.
The survey also found that 79% of male victims kept it to themselves – possibly reflecting the fears that many men have of embarrassment, ridicule or perceived scrutiny of their masculinity that may come with raising complaints.
There are also concerns that their complaints will not be taken seriously or laughed off as a ‘joke’, or that as men they should be able to look after themselves.
But in the wake of campaigns such as #metoo and changing societal attitudes, these views are being challenged and leading more men to come forward to share their experiences.
HR needs to be well prepared to meet this increased awareness, and willingness for men to speak out, as organisations may face claims of sex discrimination or unfair/constructive dismissal if they fail to deal properly with claims of harassment.
The first step in dealing with a complaint of workplace sexual harassment is to keep an open mind.
Don’t automatically take the one side’s word over the other’s and avoid knee-jerk reactions, such as immediately suspending or dismissing an alleged perpetrator.
Complaints of sexual harassment should be treated seriously and the person making the complaint, any potential witnesses and the alleged perpetrator, should all be treated fairly and sensitively. Any support, such as access to occupational health, should be offered to both parties.
An employer has a duty of care towards both sexes, which means treating them both sympathetically and respectfully.
Failure to do so could lead to a personal injury claim, for example, if an employee becomes unwell because of how they’ve been treated.
An employer also has a duty to its employees to maintain mutual trust and respect; and treating either the complainant or alleged perpetrator unfairly and unreasonably could lead to claims of constructive dismissal.
To suspend or not?
Following the apparent suicide last year of Welsh MP Carl Sargeant, the Government in Wales faced calls for a review amid claims that his party did not deal fairly with the minister when he was accused of harassment by a female colleague.
Mr Sargeant had been suspended and then sacked as a minister following the claims but reportedly he had not been given the details of the claims against him.
Once an employer receives an allegation of harassment, a decision needs to be made whether or not to suspend the alleged perpetrator.
This decision should not be taken lightly and tribunals have confirmed that an unjustified suspension could justify an employee resigning and successfully claiming constructive dismissal or personal injury if there is no evidence to support suspension.
In making this decision, firstly consider the severity of the allegations, whether they are corroborated and the alternatives, such as temporarily moving one of the employees to a different work location or role.
Then, conduct a thorough investigation including meeting with the complainant to obtain full details of the allegations, taking statements from relevant witnesses and gathering any other documentary evidence, such as CCTV recordings.
A fair and balanced investigation requires the employer to gather evidence that supports the allegation as well as any evidence that supports the employee accused of harassment.
If, following investigation, sexual harassment is found to have taken place the perpetrator should be dealt with consistently and in accordance with the employer’s disciplinary policy and procedures, irrespective of seniority or sex.
In March, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a report, Turning the tables: ending sexual harassment at work, which makes a number of recommendations for legal changes to better protect victims of sexual harassment at work.
While not law, there are some which employers could implement now to help both sexes of sexual harassment to come forward.
These include targeted sexual harassment training for managers, a confidential online tool for employees to report instances of sexual harassment and publication of employers’ sexual harassment policies online.
Although these changes by themselves will not prevent sexual harassment at work, they should however, along with changing societal attitudes and increased publicity, help to create a new workplace landscape where sexual harassment is no longer tolerated.