Harassment at Work. Employer Guide

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There has been much news publicity recently surrounding harassment, particularly on the grounds of disability and sex. According to Macmillan Cancer Support there has been an increased number of employees with cancer feeling discriminated when they return to work.

This is supported by a YouGov survey that shows 37% of employees experience discrimination at work after they have had cancer, with 9% leaving and 13% claiming their employer had failed to make reasonable adjustments. As cancer is classed as a disability, companies need to ensure that they act legally when dealing with such employees.

Also sharing the headlines have been claims of sexual harassment, often with such conduct being ignored by companies and other work colleagues. An employer will often be held responsible for the discriminatory actions of its employees and may also be responsible for discrimination by external bodies such as recruitment agencies if they are acting with the employer’s authority. It is therefore important for an employer to investigate any such allegations that arise and if necessary take the appropriate remedial action.

What is harassment?

Harassment involves unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an offensive, intimidating or hostile environment. It is discriminatory if it is related to the following protected characteristics:

  • Sex
  • Disability.
  • Age.
  • Race (including ethnic or national origin, nationality and colour).
  • Sexual orientation.
  • Religion or belief.
  • Gender reassignment.

Why is it important for employers to know about discrimination law?

Ensuring equality

Discrimination is governed by the Equality Act 2010; its’ purpose is to ensure equality of opportunity at work, to protect employees’ dignity and to ensure that complaints can be raised without fear of reprisal.

Damaging publicity and loss of staff morale

Allegations of discrimination or harassment are likely to create bad publicity for an employer; an Employment Tribunal hearing is held in public, often with the press in attendance in the hope of gathering an interesting news story for publication in local, or even national, media. It is wiser to prevent a claim than to have to manage the consequential fallout after a claim has been made. Discrimination and harassment issues can be highly emotive, and the process may have a negative impact on employee morale.

High compensation payments and expensive litigation

There is no limit to the amount of compensation that an employee can be awarded by an Employment Tribunal in a successful discrimination case. A company also has to factor in the significant management time involved and legal costs, which are usually not recoverable in an Employment Tribunal.

Practical steps employers can take to reduce the risk of an Employment Tribunal claim:

  • Provide staff with employment handbooks, including policies on equal opportunities and harassment, setting out what constitutes acceptable behaviour and what does not.
  • Set up clear procedures for staff to raise concerns and complaints, and for dealing with complaints. Ensure discriminatory behaviour by staff is not tolerated and is dealt with through proper disciplinary measures.
  • Review employment contracts, policies and employee share schemes to ensure they comply with the law.
  • Make reasonable adjustments where this will alleviate difficulties suffered by a disabled employee in the workplace.
  • Accommodate workers’ different cultures and religious beliefs, if possible.
  • Try to accommodate requests for family-friendly hours by employees with childcare or other family commitments, unless refusal is justified.
  • Carry out equal opportunities monitoring but do not use the forms as part of recruitment or other decision-making. Data from the forms should be aggregated and anonymised.