Everyone has the right to work in an environment where they feel equal and are not intimidated by another member of the workforce, regardless of their gender. As a small business owner, it is your responsibility (if you have employees) to ensure there is a respectful environment in the business.

So, what constitutes sexual harassment? It’s important to note that intention does not affect whether a certain behaviour is classed as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment encompasses any behaviour that creates an environment in which a worker feels humiliated, intimidated or degraded by unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. The conduct does not have to be directed at the worker for the complaint of sexual harassment to be valid, and as mentioned above, the intention of the conduct is irrelevant.

The plight of the LGBTQ community has become far more publicised, and as an employer it’s important to understand how LGBTQ workers may need to be supported in the workplace, what harassment issues may arise, and how to deal with such instances of sexual harassment. Whilst the Equality Act currently only refers to cisgender people and transgender people (of any sexual orientation), it is good practice to support non-binary people (those who do not identify with any gender) as well.

To read more about what is defined as sexual harassment you can go to the ACAS website where they cover the subject in more detail.

If one of your workers raises a complaint of sexual harassment with you, you must take it extremely seriously. Reporting sexual harassment can make a worker feel vulnerable and stressed so it’s of paramount importance that you ensure that the reporting process is simple and stress free. Unlike with a formal grievance, the complaint does not have to be in writing, therefore any inkling of an allegation of sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace should be investigated.

Boss and worker speaking privately

Ensure your employees have the opportunity to speak privately to you (or the appointed HR member) and that they have your confidence to do so. As with the prescribed disciplinary process, you must allow the complainant to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative if they wish. If this is not practicable (either due to the size of your workforce or for other factors), then you may wish to allow a family member or friend to accompany them; just remember to refer to any contracts and handbooks you have to ensure you are following company procedures. ACAS have a code of practice for disciplinary and grievance procedures which you should also refer to.

If you are able to, early resolution without recourse to a formal disciplinary and grievance procedure is an ideal way to handle this. However, sometimes it is clear that an informal approach will not be sufficient – this is a bit of a judgement call on your part. Informal approaches can include mediation between the complainant and offender as well as training and mentorship.

If a formal approach is required then employers should investigate the allegations tactfully, keeping an open mind and being sensitive to the feelings of both the alleged offender and the complainant. It’s important to realise that it’s a very emotive subject and people have very different definitions of harassment. Once investigations are completed and facts have been established, the situation must be resolved and concluded. There are a range of outcomes that could be pertinent, these are covered more fully in this handy ACAS guide. Both parties do have the right of appeal (which should be communicated to them)  as is normal in disciplinary and grievance matters.

For all kinds of business advice from start up, to advice for established companies, the expert team at Neil Smith Accountancy are here for you. With offices in Witham and Maldon, Essex, we are proud to serve companies and individuals throughout Essex and London. Get in touch for a free consultation to see how we can help you.