How to prevent sexual harassment in a small business

Kate Palmer, head of advisory at Peninsula, discusses how to create a culture where employees feel that they can make complaints about sexual harassment.

Preventing sexual harassment is one of the most concerning elements of managing staff for many employers. Employers have an obligation to prevent this from occurring and, if it can be shown they have not taken all reasonable steps to stop this, then the employer can be found liable for employee’s actions. Issues of sexual harassment can fall under the radar so employers need to take all possible steps to prevent this happening.

Uber’s reputation has suffered over recent years due to a number of troubling claims about their workplace culture. This was further highlighted when a former female software engineer wrote a blog post about how her complaints of sexual harassment against a colleague were ignored because they were a high performing employee. The post attracted a lot of attention and the employee wrote that a lot of other women employed by Uber had reported similar problems and concerns to her. The company has now released details of their firing of 20 employees following a company investigation in to sexual harassment claims. Over 200 claims of sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct were scrutinised which led to the dismissals and other sanctions, including final warnings.

Laying out the rules

For all employers, laying out the rules on employee behaviour is a crucial first step for preventing sexual harassment. An anti-harassment policy should include information on what type of behaviour is prohibited and the consequences if the policy is breached. This policy should recognise that sexual harassment can take a number of forms and include all behaviour whether this is speech, touch, emails, other forms of written communication or jokes and ‘banter’. All employees should be required to read the policy and sign a notice as evidence they have read and understand the policy. Companies that grow quickly, like Uber, can miss this step to save time but having such a policy in place immediately sets the business off on the right path.

As well as outlining the rules, employers should provide training for all staff on how to avoid sexual harassment and what steps to take if a complaint needs to be made. Managers should also receive additional training on how to spot incidents, how to deal with complaints and how to ensure sexual harassment issues are not present in their decision-making processes. Uber have announced that their additional sanctions have included enforcing training for 31 members of staff. Whilst this should have taken place either at the beginning of their employment, or at the time complaints were raised, training staff will help to reduce the likelihood of similar instances occurring and will help to remove the troubling culture within the company going forwards.

Misconduct running deep

The extent of the misconduct revelations uncovered by Uber’s internal investigations highlights how hidden incidents of sexual harassment can be. Employers need to cultivate a culture where employees feel they are able to raise complaints. The easiest way of encouraging employees to raise complaints is to treat every issue seriously; carrying out a full investigation and taking action where necessary. Also, identifying the person to make as complaint to, and what process will be followed, will also encourage issues being raised as it increases transparency and removes uncertainty about the process. Uber have opened a 24-hour phone line where employees can raise their concerns which communicates the message that they are now taking this issue seriously. They are also continuing to investigate 57 of the original 215 complaints; indicating their intention to deal with issues fully.

Uber are also making changes to their senior management. In many companies, the attitude of senior managers to issues such as sexual harassment permeates the culture of the company and leads other staff to think and act in a similar manner. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is taking a leave of absence for personal reasons whilst admitting he needs to become a better leader for the future. A director has resigned after making a sexist joke about women talking too much whilst at a company meeting to address sexism. Two new female executives, Bozoma Saint John and Frances Frei, have also been appointed to help create the right work culture. A recommendation that performance reviews should be used to hold senior managers to account by measuring how they improve diversity and respond to employee complaints will also be considered.

Uber has taken a number of high-profile steps to address the sexual harassment concerns in a public and transparent way. Where a culture of harassment has been normalised, it will often take more substantial actions to transform the culture, although dismissals should only be used as a last resort at the end of a full and fair procedure. Uber bosses are likely to be keeping hopeful that they have done enough but only time will tell.

Kate Palmer is head of advisory at Peninsula

Further reading on managing staff

Kate Palmer

Kate Palmer

Kate Palmer is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and HR Advice & Consultancy Director at Peninsula UK.

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Sexual harassment

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