Meeting the challenge of new rules on sexual harassment

As Philip Green becomes the latest high-profile individual to be accused of sexual harassment, HR must root out problems closer to home

Few would argue that sexual harassment should be tolerated – and few would be bold enough to claim that there is no harassment at their workplace.

New employment laws are expected. While the press has largely focused on restricting the scope of confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements, a much wider range of legal changes is possible. These include, for example, proposals to change laws on employers’ responsibilities for third-party harassment, introducing compulsory reporting to regulators, and introducing a new statutory code of practice for employers.

While changes to legislation could help, they are likely to play a smaller part than the actions business leaders, HR and line managers could voluntarily take to eliminate harassment. Most good employers already have policies and procedures in place explaining what employees should do if problems arise, and many offer training to staff. The piece that is often missing is attention to workplace culture and the operation of policies and procedures in practice.

For example, most employers would agree that a risqué bar is not an appropriate place to entertain clients, meet colleagues or take junior employees. Yet this still happens, and as long as senior employees participate and no action is taken the message is clear – no amount of equality training is likely to persuade staff otherwise. Why not check up on Christmas party plans and expenses policies now?

Employees are not likely to speak up, for themselves or others, if they know that if they do their career will be blighted. Change requires leadership by practical example. Opportunities to respond to minor complaints constructively could be seized, or at the very least treated with the same consideration as staff are expected to extend to customers. Where a more formal grievance or incident arises a more challenging change of mindset may be required. The heightened media and political context, and increased commercial risk associated with getting things wrong, gives HR an opportunity to push for change.

One of the concerns repeatedly, and rightly, raised is that victims of harassment do not always feel free to speak out to police, doctors or family. This should be addressed where a formal settlement agreement is used, and employment lawyers can offer technical guidance on what is legally acceptable in those circumstances. But consideration of legal limits offers only a partial fix. HR practitioners may wish to approach things from the other direction and consider what restrictions are really required, as a minimum, to meet the parties’ needs. They will find their employment lawyers happy to help.

Juliet Carp is chair of the UK Employment Lawyers Association