Emma Digby is a Legal 500 recommended lawyer and Partner and head of the commercial litigation department at Bell and Buxton. ‘Never one to shy away from tricky subjects’, here she takes a look at workplace harassment
Thanks for reading my first column for unLTD. When I was contemplating what to write about I was mindful of what subjects you might find interesting.
And as I am never one to shy away from tricky subjects, I thought I would begin with looking at ‘harassment in the workplace’ as this can be an area of concern for businesses employing staff.
The Equality Act 2010 states that there are three different types of harassment – general harassment, sexual harassment, and less favourable treatment. Of course employees have a personal liability in respect of any harassment that they commit, but importantly, an employer may also be vicariously liable for any acts of harassment committed by its employees which occur during the course of employment.
An employer may avoid corporate liability if it can successfully argue that it has taken all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination from occurring. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published guidance for employers on dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace – it recommends that, while complaints of harassment can be dealt with either under an employer’s existing grievance policy or anti-harassment policy, anybody dealing with complaints of sexual harassment should receive specialist training.
The EHRC guidance also makes a number of specific recommendations on how an employer’s grievance process should deal with harassment complaints.
So what is harassment?
General harassment occurs where person A harasses another person, B, by engaging in unwanted conduct related to sex, age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation with the purpose or effect of violating B’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.
Sexual harassment occurs where A engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect being the same as with general harassment.
Less favourable treatment occurs where A engages in either form of harassment, AND because of B’s rejection of, or submission to the conduct, A treats B less favourably.
What constitutes unwanted conduct of a sexual nature?
Among other things, this includes:
Propositioning and making sexual advances Unwelcome touching, hugging, massaging or kissing Sending sexually explicit emails and text messages Suggestive looks, staring or leering Criminal behaviour, including sexual assault, stalking, indecent exposure and offensive communications.
Whatever the circumstances, it is always upsetting and unpleasant when workplace harassment occurs, but it always helps to know your rights and obligations. Whether you are an employer or employee, if you would like to discuss a matter involving workplace harassment you can talk to me or my team in complete confidence.