Saturday, 28 November 2015

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Make sure Valentine's Day pranks don't land you with a legal problem

This week sees the most romantic day of the year which may mean smiles and happiness for lovers young and old, but in the workplace, employers need to ensure stupid Cupids don’t get carried away with Valentine’s verve and land the business with a claim for sexual harassment.

Inappropriate comments, smutty “fake” cards, flowers and saucy text messages may seem like a bit of light hearted fun, but they can lead to allegations of bullying and harassment, especially if there is already a difficult relationship between co-workers or the attention is unwanted.

According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

Workers are protected from sexual harassment under The Employment Equality (Sex Discrimination) Regulations 2005 (although this is expected to be replaced by provisions in the Equality Bill later this year). Acts of harassment can be one-off or behaviour over a longer period of time.

Sexual harassment can take three forms; verbal, non-verbal or physical.

So aside from banning Valentine’s Day, what should bosses do to prevent problems?

Have a policy
The most important factor is to make it clear to employees that sexual harassment is not tolerated and that complaints of such harassment are taken seriously. We always recommend a clear, written policy. Without a formal document, it is more difficult to demonstrate that you are a good employer if a complaint gets before a tribunal.
Make sure your staff know the policy exists, what actions will be taken and are trained to recognise potential acts of sexual harassment by others.

Take Action
What is a joke or an innocent comment to one worker may be perceived as harassment to another.
As far as the law is concerned, the judge of what is demeaning and unacceptable is the recipient.
As an employer, you must be particularly sensitive and should not brush aside complaints because you or the perpetrator do not see
that offence should be caused.
Complaints of sexual harassment should always be thoroughly investigated and anyone guilty of sexual harassment should be disciplined.

Deal with malicious complaints

Unfortunately, malicious and vindictive complaints of sexual harassment are fairly common, but employers should not assume a complaint is vindictive just because the behaviour does not seem offensive or the personalities are well known. Employers must initially deal with every complaint as if it is genuine. The potential consequences of a sexual harassment claim are serious for the employer, but could be career-ending for the perpetrator.
For the employer, a proven claim of sexual discrimination at the employment tribunal could result in a compensation payment of thousands of pounds as well as unwelcome publicity and damage to its reputation. It’s not worth ignoring sexual harassment because the actions seem petty or you cannot believe someone would do such a thing.

Acas has produced a booklet on bullying and harassment which is available at

Hazel Phillips is an associate in Burnetts’ employment law team. For further information, contact Hazel on 01228 552222 or visit


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