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What can employers learn from the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case?

It may have taken the behaviour of one of the biggest names in Hollywood to put sexual harassment at work onto the front pages but the issues raised are relevant to employers and employees the world over, whether they are in a multinational corporation or a small business.

Film producer Weinstein has been a powerful force in the Hollywood movie industry for decades and his sacking comes amidst a string of sexual harassment allegations, some dating back many years. As well as highlighting the fact that nobody is untouchable, the case shines a light on the victims of his abuse and their personal battle to make themselves heard.

The Equality Act 2010 protects UK employees from sexual harassment at work. However, victims can still find it very difficult to voice their concerns and many are unaware of what is and is not acceptable. Sexual harassment in the workplace can take many forms and employers have a responsibility to ensure that their employees are aware of the law. Unwanted behaviour with sexual undertones, however light-hearted it may appear, should not be tolerated. This might include emails or comments incorporating sexual jokes or innuendo, wolf whistling or inappropriate physical contact. The recipient may not complain but that does not mean the behaviour is welcome. Men and women can be affected by sexual harassment, as can all types of workers, including applicants and apprentices.

Citizen’s Advice suggests that victims should put their concerns in writing to a manager and keep a copy for their own records, noting the date and any witnesses. Claims should be made within three months of the incident. Employees can also approach their HR department or make a formal complaint using their employer’s grievance procedure. If all else fails, a claim can be made to an employment tribunal. Harassment of any kind, sexual or otherwise, represents a breach of trust between employee and employer and the Weinstein case serves as a timely reminder for companies to make sure their Equal Opportunities Policy and harassment and grievance procedures are up to date. They should be asking themselves if they are certain their staff would know how to report an incident and what steps would be taken in the event of an allegation being made against another employee. Would team members feel comfortable making their concerns known and would they be listened to, particularly if the complaint involved a senior and influential member of the organisation?

All too often, when cases come to tribunal, the allegations made against a company  highlight serious administrative failures. It is not enough to simply have a policy in place; that policy needs to work and the pathways of reporting and investigation should be robust.

Returning briefly to the Weinstein case, what if an allegation of sexual harassment is made against someone who may be seen as untouchable – an owner, director, senior manager or stakeholder, for example? Would it be treated in exactly the same way as a complaint against a more junior member of the team? Would the victim feel more inclined to keep it to themselves? This isn’t simply a case of ticking a box to make sure policies are in place. When employees feel valued and listened to, they are more likely to be loyal and productive. Effective sexual harassment, bullying and equal opportunity policies – and that means policies that are known, understood and bought into by everyone in the organisation – help to create a positive culture and an inspiring working environment.