It could be pin-ups on the wall, offensive e-mails, a pass from a manager or a grope at an office party. One of your employees has alleged sexual harassment against a colleague, and you have to act. Screw up and you could be on the wrong end of an extremely expensive legal action that might leave your reputation in tatters. What should you do?
TAKE PRE-EMPTIVE ACTION. A sexual harassment policy may not prevent incidents taking place, but it should ensure that you are better equipped to deal with them, and it might provide some legal protection. 'You should spell out what will be considered harassment, the redress that will be made, and how someone can make a complaint,' says Jayne Monkhouse, employment policy manager at the Equal Opportunities Commission. Then if you subsequently dismiss an employee, you can argue breach of contract. Circulate the policy as widely as possible, and consider training for line managers.
TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. A Page Three picture may seem innocuous to some people but to others it is deeply offensive. In the eyes of the law, it's the feelings of the person making the complaint that matter. One of the three main grounds for awarding compensation is injury to feelings. 'It is vital to tackle a climate that allows offensive behaviour and language to go unchallenged in the workplace,' says Diana Warman, adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development. 'That also means creating a climate in which people can raise issues in an informal way and know that they will be listened to and the complaint acted upon.'
MAKE SOMEONE RESPONSIBLE. There should be somebody in the company who has specific responsibility for dealing with any harassment complaints and is trained accordingly. Whether male or female, the person chosen should be sensitive.
KEEP THE TWO SIDES APART. 'One of the problems you have to deal with immediately is continued working between the victim and the perpetrator,' says Camilla Palmer, a discrimination specialist at solicitors Bindman & Partners. 'It can be extremely upsetting for someone who has been subject to harassment to have to carry on working with the person responsible.' Try to ensure that the two do not come into direct contact until the issue has been resolved. But don't move the plaintiff into a less important or less senior role; that could be seen as victimisation.
INVESTIGATE. Don't sit on a complaint. Get both versions of what occurred, taking written statements. 'Harassment is rarely perpetrated when others are around,' says Monkhouse, 'which means that corroborating evidence might not be there.' If it boils down to one person's word against another, you have to make a judgment on the balance of probabilities, which is what a tribunal would eventually do. It may be that two heads are better than one, but remember that you are obliged to maintain confidentiality.
CHECK YOUR LIABILITIES. As an employer you must show that you have done everything you can to stamp out offensive behaviour. And what many employers fail to realise, says Palmer, is that, although compensation for unfair dismissal is limited to pounds 50,000, there is no cap on liability in discrimination cases. Kay Swinburne, the City high-flyer who brought a case against her former employer Deutsche Bank, won a reported pounds 500,000 in compensation. So, if in doubt, consult your lawyers fast.
HUSH IT UP AT YOUR PERIL. Somebody who harasses one person is quite likely to do it again, so you may be storing up trouble if you try to sweep the problem under the carpet. Also, it will count against you if you are subsequently taken to court.
YOU CAN'T BAN OFFICE ROMANCE. Employee relationships will simply become clandestine. Research has shown that most of us meet our partners at work.
DON'T SAY: 'Well, you are an attractive woman, Miss Jones.'
DO SAY: 'Sexual innuendo and other forms of offensive behaviour will not be tolerated by this company.'