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Sexual Harassment Law - Is a ‘hugging culture’ ever ok?

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There can be little doubt that the world has changed since the rise of the #MeToo movement in October 2017. A recent study by the Fawcett Society revealed that there has been a significant shift in attitudes to sexual harassment in the workplace and a concomitant increase in the number of employees who were likely to speak up. Behaviour that wouldn’t have been challenged before is now being called out – often very vocally. It’s clear that these issues are not going away, and employers need to understand how best to deal with them and avoid a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Increasing recognition of sexual harassment in the workplace

In a post-#MeToo world, it’s not hard to imagine the difficulties facing the HR department that received a petition signed by more than 2,600 employees calling for an end to “forced hugs” and “harassment”.

This was the situation at top fashion retailer Ted Baker at the start of December, when it was revealed that founder and Chief Executive Ray Kelvin had been accused of creating a culture of “forced hugging” in the workplace, with more than 50 recorded incidents of alleged harassment at the brand. Former and current workers alleged that the CEO “always wants a hug from every member of staff” and that he kept a rug marked ‘the hug zone’ by his desk. Another employee claimed that Kelvin made staff members slow dance with him at their desks and sit on his knee, in view of other employees.

A statement from Ted Baker responding to the allegations stated that “hugs have become part of Ted Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon.”

Following media attention and a 15% fall in share prices, the retailer has confirmed that it intends to conduct an independent investigation into these allegations.

The law sexual harassment law is clear

The sexual harassment law is clear – it is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Regardless of the intention of the harasser, unwanted conduct that not only has the purpose of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, is prohibited, but also conduct that has that effect.

And it will be looked at from the point of view of the victim (provided the victim was reasonable in taking the view of the situation that they did). One-off incidents can constitute harassment and the victim is not required to notify the harasser in advance that the conduct in question is not wanted.

The definition of harassment provided by the law covers a vast array of behaviour, and while something like a hug may seem harmless, the subjective nature of harassment means that it may not be as innocent as the person initiating the hug may believe, or intend.

What employers can do to help prevent sexual harassment

Employers should ensure that staff have received appropriate and adequate equality and diversity training, which emphasises what behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace. HR departments have a responsibility to monitor their organisation and step in when things are going wrong, before they have a chance to escalate. They should encourage a culture of reporting within the workplace and ensure any complaints made about sexual harassment are taken seriously. Complaints channels should also be effective and deal with complaints quickly and appropriately. This may include an independent investigation and, if necessary, suspension for those accused of inappropriate behaviour – even if it is the CEO.

Ray Kelvin has since taken a leave of absence from Ted Baker following the harassment allegations.

With the rise in the number of sexual harassment complaints, and the commencement of the Christmas staff party season, now is a great time for employers to ensure that their sexual harassment policies and procedures are up-to-date and there is a clear expectation of what is - and is not ok - behaviour at all levels of the organisation – from the CEO down.

If you have concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace and would like to speak to someone about them, please contact our Clarion Employment Team.

Disclaimer: Anything posted on this blog is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any general or specific matter. Please refer to our terms and conditions for further information. Please contact the author of the blog if you would like to discuss the issues raised.