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Organisations ‘have no plans to revise sexual harassment policies’

Poll suggests employers remain confident in existing practices despite successive scandals – but experts warn change is required

Remarkably few companies planned to either review or alter their internal harassment and misconduct policies in the immediate aftermath of recent sexual harassment scandals, new research has revealed.

Experts told People Management that employers should revisit their policies – even if they considered they were up to date – after fewer than a fifth of organisations polled by the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA) said they intended to review their internal policies.

A poll of more than 400 company secretaries from a range of businesses, carried out by ICSA over the recent Christmas period – two months after news of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke – found that more than 70 per cent of organisations would not review their workplace harassment policies.

A company secretary, or head of governance, has a senior strategic role central to governance in organisations and communicates between the board of directors and company shareholders.

Despite further widely publicised cases of sexual harassment, 71 per cent of respondents said their organisations would not amend their policies, while 15 per cent were unsure whether or not they should, according to the poll.

Managers who admitted they would shy away from reviewing their harassment and conduct policies attributed this to factors including the ‘robust’ measures already in place, and ‘well developed’ policies on sexual harassment that were regularly updated.

Companies that said they were planning to amend their policies also said they would increase line manager training, and raise awareness of sexual misconduct issues, as well as promote the channels through which individuals could voice their grievances.

CIPD senior employment relations adviser Rachel Suff told People Management it was important that organisations reviewed their sexual harassment policies now, even if a policy is considered robust, because this was ‘only the start’ of tackling damaging workplace cultures.

“Given the pervasive nature of the sexual harassment scandal, I would hope the majority of organisations are at least thinking about their policies. It’s important to remember that while a good policy is important, it’s the ways you use and communicate that policy that ensure you have the right culture of prevention at work,” she said.

“A good policy should include clear examples and explanations of what harassment is, and the message that the organisation takes a zero-tolerance approach towards incidents of harassment.

“It should also be clear that harassment will be treated as a disciplinary offence, [and companies must] lay out the steps someone can take if they feel they have been sexually harassed, outline what it means to have a culture of respect, and explain the expectations of line managers in enforcing this.” Employers must then follow through on these expectations, she added.

Sarah Chilton, partner at employment law firm CM Murray, warned that employers could be held vicariously liable for incidents of sexual harassment if they cannot demonstrate they are regularly taking steps to prevent it in their organisation.

“An employer can be held vicariously liable for the harassment of one employee by another employee, unless they can demonstrate they have taken reasonable steps to prevent that harassment,” she told People Management.

“This means having an adequate policy in place, but also reviewing and updating that policy, and ensuring everyone is aware of it.

“There are a lot of cases where individuals have committed harassment without realising it because the policy is not clear enough, so as humans and HR professionals we should be thinking about how to give more colour of what harassment can be. I would encourage every one of our clients to review their policy, update it if necessary and provide regular training either once a year, or every two years.”

While employers can be found vicariously liable for harassment carried out by an employee under the Equality Act 2010, there are currently no statutory grounds to find an employer liable for the behaviours of a third party in the workplace.

The Fawcett Society last week launched a review of sex discrimination law at work, calling on the government to update statutory sex discrimination laws. It must reinstate employer liability for third-party harassment of workers, which the government repealed in 2013, it said.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also issued letters and guidance on sexual harassment at work, writing to the CEOs of FTSE 100 companies and other large UK employers in December, demanding evidence of the steps organisations were taking to prevent sexual harassment at work.

The watchdog warned of legal action and sanctions if organisations systemically failed to combat and safeguard against sexual harassment.

“The most important thing is for organisations to develop a zero-tolerance culture. This feeds into gender equality policies, cultures and the ways people behave, and the means for women to progress in organisations,” Suff said.

“Low-level harassment creates the sort of atmosphere that will justify and normalise unacceptable comments and give examples of the worst forms of sexual harassment, so a zero-tolerance approach is crucial.”

Sarah Chilton, published in People Management

By Emily Burt