Recent media revelations over Harvey Weinstein and other showbiz and political figures have brought the issue of sexual harassment into the limelight once again.

Many have questioned why it has taken so long for such allegations to come to light and why they were not raised at the time. Perhaps the real question is why the issue was never tackled given the signs appear to have been there all along. It should also ring alarm bells for every organisation as to what steps they have taken to ensure that sexual harassment does not occur in their workplace.

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour that is intended or has the effect of making someone feel intimidated, humiliated, degraded or offended, where the reason for such treatment is due to their sex. It can affect men as well as women and can be due to a one off incident, as well as a series of incidents. It is a form of sexual discrimination and companies are frequently held liable for the acts of their employees where one employee harasses another.

When the harassment is due to a senior or key employee in the firm, tackling harassment can be difficult due to the position of power they hold. However, this is precisely why it has to be tackled and failure to do so is likely to result in compensation awards potentially being higher if firms do not do so. In 2015/16 the average sex discrimination award in England and Wales was £85,622. The highest was £1,762,130. Then there is the reputational damage to the company, not to mention the anguish caused to those affected.

Organisations can avoid liability if they can show that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring. This would include having an equal opportunities policy in place and training managers on how to deal with such allegations if they arise or if they see such behaviour happening, although a formal complaint has not yet been made. It would also include training staff on the standards expected of them. The defence is only available if the preventative steps have been taken before any allegation arises. Training courses are a cost effective way of managing that risk, particularly now that the removal of Tribunal fees means the likelihood of a claim is now much higher. For further details of our forthcoming training days in Leeds and York, please contact a member of the Employment Team.

In Mr Weinstein’s case, having a clause in the employment contract that allegedly allowed him to remain employed providing he paid a penalty for every claim brought against him should have raised alarm bells. The Weinstein Company, despite firing Mr Weinstein, now faces legal claims from the women who have made accusations against him and the first movie released since the scandal hit has been a flop. A salutary lesson in why preventing and tackling harassment is imperative.

If you would like to discuss any issues raised in this article, we have specific employment law expertise in advising in this area. For further advice, please contact Angela Gorton or a member of the Employment Team.

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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