Businesses are advised to ensure that they are aware of the risks of unintended offence being caused through inappropriate behaviour this Valentine’s Day.
Recent high profile scandals like the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the Presidents Club charity event in London have put the issue of workplace harassment and bullying firmly in the spotlight.
Yet there is a risk that some people will not make the connection between these incidents and what they might consider to be harmless office banter in a Valentine’s Day card - or the giving of a risqué gift.
The law says that employers all have a responsibility to help ensure a working environment in which the dignity of employees is respected. Everyone should ensure that their behaviour towards colleagues and customers does not cause offence and could not in any way be considered to be harassment.
Managers have a duty to implement this policy and to make every effort to ensure that harassment does not occur, particularly in work areas for which they are responsible.
However, in spite of this, a recent BBC survey of 2,000 employees that found that 53% of women and 20% of men said they had experienced sexual harassment, ranging from inappropriate comments to actual sexual assaults, at work or a place of study.
Harassment in the workplace can take many forms, including:
• Physical conduct ranging from touching to serious assault
• Isolation or non-co-operation at work or exclusion from social activities
• Coercion, including pressure for sexual favours or pressure to participate in political/religious groups
• Intrusion by pestering, spying, following etc.
Importantly though, it can also be caused through activities such as:
• Verbal and written harassment through jokes, offensive remarks, offensive gossip and slander, threats or letters
• Visual displays of posters, graffiti, obscene gestures or any other offensive material.
To prevent any member of staff causing offense or becoming the victim of harassment, employers should ensure that they have an anti-bullying and harassment policy in place and that they follow procedures under that policy carefully and sensitively.
If they do receive a complaint as a result of material considered to be offensive – including Valentine’s Day messages or presents, however well intended – they should conduct internal inquiries in line with their company’s policy.
If the complaint looks as though it may result in external investigations, including a potential employment tribunal, it is important to engage specialist legal experts early and provide them with clear documentation detailing events up to that point.
Lauren Pickard is a senior associate in hlw Keeble Hawson’s employment law department whose advice and assistance covers the complete employment law spectrum.