Given the renewed public awareness of the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace as a result of the #MeToo and #TIMESUP movements, employers must ensure that they take proactive steps to reduce the risk of sexual harassment occurring, including by reviewing existing sexual harassment policies and fostering a work environment that is based on respect and dignity.
Many of our clients are telling us that in the last 3-5 months they have seen a spike in grievances and complaints being made in the workplace in relation to a range of matters, not just sexual harassment.
This is an important moment for employers to ensure that they have appropriate tools in place to test that the workplace culture is not one that tolerates sexual harassment, and that they have a risk management strategy to deal with complaints when they arise.
We recommend the businesses take a fresh look at the following critical issues for managing sexual harassment risks in the age of #MeToo:
Culture:It is critical that from the top down, the workplace culture does not support sexual harassment, bullying or discrimination. Further, the culture should encourage employees to report inappropriate behaviour and foster confidence that if inappropriate behaviour occurs, it will be properly investigated and the person engaging in the conduct appropriately dealt with.
Policies:Policies must not only exist, they must clearly set out the standards of accepted behaviour and employees must have ready access to these polices and know that they will be followed and enforced.
Training:Training about workplace behaviour must occur at all levels – from the Board, to senior management and all employees. The training should be real and engaging, using examples, case studies and questions to test knowledge and understanding. The training should be tailored for, and targeted at, the particular audience. The training should be mandatory, documented and regularly refreshed.
Response: Being prepared to deal with allegations of sexual harassment can be critical for businesses, now more than ever. Managing the initial complaint, including dealing with the victim and the respondent are critical first issues. Where the allegations get into the public domain, other strategic planning issues such as legal professional privilege, advising Boards and stakeholders and media management/public relations can all impact on reputational risks and any future litigation.
Investigations: Conducting workplace investigations can be extremely complex, particularly when allegations might give rise to a complaint to police, or litigation against the employer for its part in the alleged misconduct. An investigation must be impartial, thorough and give confidence to the complainant and respondent that a proper process will be followed, and the outcome will be fact based.