Pub banter can be sex harassment, equality watchdog warns businesses
BUSINESSES must tell their staff that “pub banter” and social media posts can amount to sexual harassment, the equality watchdog warns today, as it issues a letter to 400 major firms.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has written to more than 400 employers warning them that they need to “step up action against bad behaviour” as new guidance is published on tackling sexual harassment. It comes after The Daily Telegraph disclosed that Sir Philip Green, the owner of Topshop, paid six-figure sums to silence allegations from his staff of groping and inappropriate comments in Britain’s own Metoo scandal.
In taking the unusual step of writing to CEOS directly, Ms Hilsenrath noted: “Recent high-profile cases have shone an important light on the continued harassment many women face in the workplace and showed that we still need to do more to modernise working cultures.”
The letter, seen by The Telegraph, points to new technical guidance which the watchdog expects “will become statutory guidance enforceable by law”.
Research has found that three quarters of workers have experienced sexual harassment, and the Metoo scandal shows it “is pervasive in contexts as diverse as Hollywood and Westminster”, the watchdog says as it warns that evidence of the need for “tougher action” is now “overwhelming”.
Employers are advised to take seven steps: develop an effective anti-harassment policy, engage staff, reduce risks, make reporting simple, provide training, act immediately when a complaint is made, and take steps to protect staff from harassment by a third party such as a customer.
The guidance can be used as evidence in an employment tribunal and it is hoped it will become a statutory code of practice when the Government announces the results of its consultation into the existing laws.
As part of an anti-harassment policy, employers will be expected to make their workers aware of the law and to provide definitions and clear examples.
A good policy will tell workers that harassment could lead to disciplinary action and the prospect of them losing their job if it takes place “in any situation related to work, such as a social
event with colleagues” and against a colleague outside a work situation “including on social media”, the Equality and Human Rights Commission advises.
Employees must be told that “aggravating factors, such as abuse of power over a more junior colleague”, will be taken into account.
Companies are reminded that they are responsible for any action which falls “within the course of employments”, such as drinks in the pub after work or leaving parties. Bosses are also being reminded that what is seen as “banter” by one worker may be construed as unacceptable by another – and conduct can amount to harassment, “even if that is not how it was intended”.
“Unwanted conduct” amounting to harassment can include posts or contact on social media, facial expressions, banter, mimicry and jokes or pranks. Sexual harassment is said to include propositions, “suggestive looks, staring or leering”, promises in return for sexual favours and spreading rumours or asking questions about a person’s sex life, as well as unwelcome touching, hugging, massaging or kissing.
Ms Hilsenrath said that “no form of harassment can ever be justified” and for too long it has been down to the victim to challenge such behaviour when the burden should actually be on the employer. “It’s been two years since Metoo forced sexual harassment to the top of the agenda,” she said. “We’ve seen some employers wake up, take this on board and start to make the differences but we need others to follow suit. The issue is not going to go away.” ♦ Sexist algorithms are ignoring women’s voices and denying them jobs, the Culture Secretary has said as it emerged fewer a quarter of UK tech jobs were held by women.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes said the lack of females at tech firms meant devices and services were being designed by men for men, with “gender inequality embedded”.