Complaint against ‘Tactile’ Boss

One of our female employees has complained about her ‘very tactile’ boss.

Whilst he has not touched her in a sexual way he does make ‘unnecessary’ contact and he is verbally suggestive in a flirty sort of way, but she now says she feels uncomfortable about it. We think that she is just over-reacting and we would not want to upset him as he is a very good performer, who makes a lot of money for the organisation. Is she not being unduly sensitive to him as there does not seem to be any harm to it?

Peter replies:

You are missing the point. Harvey Weinstein made a lot of money for the company until the Company ditched him because he became a serious liability. Much sexual harassment is about power rather than just being ‘red-blooded’. Powerful people are more likely to abuse their power, not least because they suspect they will be backed in the event of a complaint. The fact that the ‘victims’ know this, makes it much less likely that they will report it, because they doubt that they will be believed or supported by their employer.

The first limb of the definition of sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010 is:

  • unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

There is a second limb which is designed to protect further against the use of power to harass:

  • that because of a person’s rejection of harassment, they are subject to retaliation or victimisation.

Sexual harassment has never been acceptable but in many cases a blind eye by senior management has tacitly permitted such behaviour to happen, without actively supporting those employees who have raised concerns, rather like this case. What is changing now is that more people are willing to speak up. The sheer volume of people speaking out about the problem means that a new zero-tolerance attitude towards sexual harassment is emerging. Only by taking action can we start to end a problem that has been allowed to fester in silence for far too long.

You need to respond or risk the legal and PR consequences of continuing to accept the unacceptable. You should start by finding out what the employee wants. If she just wants it to stop, then a strong quiet word of reprimand may do the trick. If she wants something done formally, then the complaint should be investigated promptly and in a professional manner. This may mean either suspending him from work or moving him temporarily to another site where he cannot interfere with the investigation. If the allegation holds up, and it is likely that others will come forward to corroborate the allegations or similar past incidents, then disciplinary action should follow.

As soon as the issue is dealt with you should:

  1. develop a comprehensive policy that acknowledges senior management’s commitment to tackling and eradicating sexual harassment and indeed all forms of discrimination.
  2. ensure training is provided for managers before educating everyone in the organisation that the policy applies to all, whether they are on or off the premises (which includes office parties), as well as to any employees or third parties who visit the premises.
  3. Keep records of everyone that has attended such dignity at work training, this could be a key mitigation should your organisation later be embroiled in a discrimination case.
  4. Repeat the training from time to time so that all new employees are covered as well and if necessary keep reinforcing the message with further refresher training.

The guidance provided in this article is just that – guidance. Before taking any action make sure that you know what you are doing, or call us for specific advice.