I work in the HR department for a large PR, marketing and design agency in London. One of our account managers was recently subjected to sexual harassment at a lunch with a client, but is worried about losing the client if she reports it. She insists on handling it herself, but I am not sure what our legal responsibilities towards her and the client are in this situation.
Sexual harassment is a serious problem, not only in the workplace, but also at work-related social events, training courses, awaydays and team meals. Your legal duties as an employer are not only to ensure that your staff are not subjected to unwanted conduct by other employees, but also in relation to all the individuals they have dealings with while carrying out their duties – in this particular case, including clients and customers.
Although harassment can almost be regarded as an ‘occupational hazard’ in certain sectors, such as an accident and emergency department, it certainly won’t be the case here. You will need to take steps to eliminate or prevent the sexual harassment from occurring again, otherwise you will be held vicariously liable.
It’s clear that the account manager is reluctant to make a formal complaint for fear of the negative consequences. However, you should at least follow an informal procedure initially to establish the facts and to ascertain the seriousness of the incident, its effect on your employee, its potential effect if repeated, and what steps should be taken to prevent it recurring.
Depending on the account manager’s wishes, possible preventative steps include: re-assigning the client to a different male account manager ensuring that future meetings take place in a formal office environment and making sure the account manager is accompanied.
In circumstances where the harasser is an employee of the client, you may wish to report it to the client’s senior management. It would then be a matter for them to deal with. If the incident is serious enough, consider terminating the account.
Shiva Shadi is an associate solicitor in the employment department at Davis Blank Furniss.