Avoiding sexual harassment claims – 3 tips for managing relationships at work

Relationships at work happen. Recently the #metoo movement has thrown sexual harassment at work into the spotlight. As one of the instances in which employers can be liable for the actions of staff, business owners will be understandably anxious to avoid becoming embroiled in an employment tribunal claim, when things go wrong.

So, what can employers do to minimise the potential negative impact on their business as a result of an inter-employee relationship? Melanie Rowe, Senior Associate and Employment Law Specialist at Murrell Associates discusses this thorny issue and gives some hints on how to minimise the risk of these issues occurring in your business.

What is sexual harassment?
Legally, sexual harassment is defined as: “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.

How could an employer be sued?
Aside from the obvious case of the employee whose better judgement was affected by too many gins during after work drinks, sexual harassment has been upheld in many cases where short and long-term relationships have ended, and one party did not modify their behaviour accordingly. It can also include complaints from staff not involved in the relationship who have been made to feel uncomfortable as a result, as well as general issues with “flirting and banter” or inappropriate physical contact and offensive language as it is also known.

What can you do to protect your business?
The outright banning of relationships is unlikely to be the answer. Aside from human rights issues, this probably won’t stop the relationship from happening, just delay you hearing about it.

A clearly defined policy is key in conjunction with management training on how to monitor the situation. Clear contractual terms which allow you to move an employee to a different team may also assist. Aside from the sexual harassment concern, management headaches can also occur if the relationship ends and “the ex” is now being treated differently. “Pillow talk” may be another problem, particularly where one of the employees is in a senior position.

Top tips include:

  1. Encourage staff to inform managers of the relationship and ensure training is given to deal with the report respectfully and in confidence;
  2. Ensure staff are aware that they must act professionally during working hours or whilst in the company of other staff members; and
  3. Warn of the penalties of unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.

If you would like more information about this topic or any aspect relating to employment law, including advice or staff training, please contact Melanie Rowe on 01872 227066 or by email at: melanie.rowe@murrellassociates.co.uk