February. Valentine’s Day. The season of love ….. BUT, and it is a big BUT has #metoo killed the office romance?
In October of last year, legislation was debated and confirmed which will put an obligation on employers to PREVENT sexual harassment in the workplace. No longer is it enough to carry out a proper investigation following an allegation of sexual harassment, but employers must take ALL REASONABLE STEPS to prevent sexual harassment in the first place.
When you talk about sexual harassment, most people think about men sexually harassing women. However, it is important to be aware that same sex harassment, as well as female on male sexual harassment, do occur and are often even less talked about and more taboo.
My brother and sister-in-law first met at work. 25 years later, they are still going strong. This is very common and in a YouGov poll in 2020, almost 20% of respondents reported meeting their current or most recent partner at work.
However, workplace romances are about to become increasingly difficult for fear of allegations of sexual harassment.
What is sexual harassment?
It is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It can be physical or verbal. It can be direct or indirect. And it can be as a result of an environment, as well as an actual act.
Since the start of the #metoo movement in 2017, there is heightened awareness of the power and imbalance which can occur in workplace relationships. There is has been a lot of bad press surrounding a lot of well known businessmen and personalities, but unfortunately, this is just the public manifestation of what has been happening to the every day employee struggling with the balance between sexual harassment at work and the office romance.
In 2021, The Fawsett Society released some findings into sexual harassment in the workplace:
- At least 40% of women have experienced workplace harassment, and women who are marginalised for other reasons, such as race or disability, face an increased risk and different forms of sexual harassment
- 45% of women in the survey reported experiencing harassment online through sexual messages, cyber harassment and sexual calls
- Almost a quarter of women who had been sexually harassed said the harassment had increased or escalated since the start of the pandemic while they were working from home
- 68% disabled women reported being sexually harassed at work, compared to 52% of women in general
- Ethnic minority workers (women and men) reported higher rates (32%) of sexual harassment than white workers (28%) over the last 12 months
- A poll of LGBT workers found that 68% had experienced some form of harassment in the workplace
When hugging someone, touching them, asking them for a drink or commenting on how nice they look can all be turned into a sexual harassment allegation, how do you navigate your way into a safe workplace relationship? How do employers help their staff to establish safe, healthy relationships?
Policies, procedures, training and communication are all important when dealing with such sensitive issues as dating, love and marriage. As a business owner and employer, you are 100% responsible for what happens in your workplace and that does, believe it or not, include the behaviour and potentially the love life of your staff.
Many, but not all, incidents of sexual harassment are at work related events such as drinks in the bar after work or the company Christmas party. It is essential that employers understand that they remain responsible for the behaviour of their staff in these settings just as much as they do in the physical office environment. If an employee is in a certain place i.e. a bar, only as a result of their employment, then the employer is responsible for their safety and welfare and that includes protecting them from sexual harassment. This could be from a fellow employee, but equally, it could be from the bar tender.
With the change to the legislation, employers not only have a duty to PREVENT the sexual harassment of their staff by their colleagues, but they are also required to PREVENT the sexual harassment of their staff by third parties. These third parties could be customers, suppliers, non-executive directors, trustees, volunteers or donors.
Employers need to take action to ensure that they have done everything reasonably practical to ensure that their staff feel safe at all times when they are involved in work or work related events.
We have been investigating a lot of sexual harassment allegations recently. The common theme is that in most cases, the alleged perpetrator “meant nothing by it”. In a couple of cases, they thought it was ‘consensual’.
Examples of sexual harassment which have been cited in our recent cases include:
- A male turning up at a female colleague’s front door, when she gave him her address
- A guy being shown pictures of other men (half undressed) by a male colleague, and being encouraged to rate them.
- A male manager going and sitting by a female colleague in a hot desking area
- A male colleague giving a kiss on the cheek to a female colleague he hadn’t seen for a long time
- A female hugging all her colleagues before a meeting started
At the end of the day, it is the alleged victim’s perception of the situation which counts. If they feel the environment is hostile, sexual or inappropriate, they can raise a grievance or bring a claim for sexual harassment.
Many years ago, I worked for a company with an anti-fraternisation policy. Today there are still large institutions, where, mostly for compliance issues, fraternisation / work place relationships must be reported. In some cases, where there is a potential security risk, one of the employees will be moved to another role. It is essential that you have a set of policies and procedures which are right for your business and could be defended if you are put in a situation where you need to justify your policy or approach.
As we enter Valentine’s Day season, it is important that employers are aware of the potential for sexual harassment, but that they are able to balance this with a newly blossoming office romance.
When does a crush on a colleague become an infatuation become sexual harassment?
When does a workplace relationship gone sour become sexual harassment?
When does the just good friends cross the line?
How, as a responsible employer, do you meet your obligation to PREVENT sexual harassment in your workplace?
Remember, only employing staff of one gender, does not mitigate your risks. Same sex sexual harassment is still sexual harassment and you, as the employer, remain responsible for the safety and welfare of your staff.
As the employer, it is your responsibility to ensure a respectful and safe working environment and to prevent sexual harassment. What you do, say and allow is going to be essential.