How should employers deal with accusations of sexual harassment?

The recent flood of accusations of sexual harassment against senior figures is forcing businesses to examine the processes they have in place to deal with such a complaint.

So what steps should employers take:

• Be proactive in encouraging openness and communication. Having an open culture in the workplace is important for supporting good working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface. It also acts as a fundamental way to discourage inappropriate behaviour and secrecy.

• Ensure there are clear policies in place to respond to a sexual harassment case. Who is responsible and what expertise do they have? Who is going to have the initial conversation with the employee making an accusation and do they have the skills to cope?

• Watertight investigations are critical. There are many risks associated with mishandled investigations; for example, the potential for investigation conclusions to be challenged; claims of bias leading to employment tribunals and the long-term effects on staff morale, and the work environment.

• Any allegation needs to be treated seriously in the first instance. There should, for example, be an onus on the person facing an accusation to engage in the process, and not have the option to refuse any participation.

• Investigations need to be formal in terms of how they are organised, carried out and reported on, and they need to be proportionate with the alleged offence.

• Training in fair decision-making can be needed among panel members involved in the investigations and resolving situations.

• The response also needs to be seen as even-handed. If an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment is found guilty, it’s important that a department can ensure sanctions are consistent.

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