Case Study

Sexual Harassment or Banter


Sexual Harassment or Banter

What was the HR situation?

  • A CEO of a construction firm was approached by a member of office staff who was concerned their female colleague was being sexually harassed by a Manager after witnessing some inappropriate behaviour.
  • The CEO spoke to the member of staff who eventually disclosed a Manager had been making persistent lewd and sexually suggestive remarks, including asking them out for drinks and dinner over a six-month period.
  • The female member of staff told the CEO that they had politely declined the offers but was finding the persistent attention very uncomfortable, especially as the person subjecting her to the unwanted behaviour was popular and in more senior in position.
  • The member of staff said they were experiencing anxiety about coming to work and were looking for another job as they could no longer cope with the unwanted behaviour and it was affecting their well-being.
  • They hadn’t said anything before as they didn’t want to be perceived as a troublemaker. 
  • When called into a preliminary investigation, the member of staff against whom the allegations were made told the CEO he was “only joking” and it was “two-way banter’ common in the business.
  • The CEO contacted Birch HR for advice and asking them to support with the matter.
  • The matter was considered and managed as a Bullying and Harassment complaint in conjunction with the Firm’s Dignity at Work and disciplinary procedure. 
  • The Manager was suspended pending an investigation. It was not an automatic response, the CEO was concerned that the employee could try to influence the witnesses, there was a risk to other employees and working relationships.

How did the Birch-HR Consultant(s) support?

  • Birch HR undertook the investigation on behalf of the firm, drafted an investigation plan, interviewed witnesses, gathered the facts and prepared a report. 
  • The evidence gathered during investigation revealed the complaints were substantiated and within the working environment there seemed to be a level of familiarity in existence in which “banter” was commonplace.  
  • The evidence did not suggest that other employees engaged in similar lewd or sexually suggestive language.
  • The investigation report was prepared and made a recommendation, amongst other things, to proceed the matter under the formal disciplinary process.
  • The investigation report was shared with the complainant and the CEO.
  • The significant HR experience provided clarity about the process and enabled the situation to be dealt with extremely sensitively and tactfully in line with the Company’s procedures and policies and in consideration of the Equality Act 2010.

What was the outcome and how did HR add value?

  • Whilst the questioning within the investigation was at times uncomfortable for all parties, the Investigating Officer used tact and diplomacy to put all involved at ease and was able to gather full and frank accounts of the facts. 
  • The complaint was substantiated, and the only mitigation put forward was that it was banter, with no offence intended. 
  • The definition of sexual harassment as defined by the Equality Act 2010 left the Consultant in no doubt that the complaint fell into this category.
  • The Manager, who had eight years continuous service with no previous disciplinary action on file was latterly dismissed for gross misconduct.
  • The complainant felt their complaint had been taken seriously, adequately addressed and felt relieved the behaviour would stop.
  • The member of staff who had witnessed an incident and made the initial complaint was reassured the Company had acted on her complaint.
  • The suspension period was kept relatively short and the investigation and subsequent processes were expedited. 
  • Refresher training sessions around bullying and harassment, and dignity at work, were delivered as well as policies being reinforced with a commitment from the Company to readdress this annually.
  • The process reaffirmed that where such a complaint is made by a third party, even when that person is not necessarily the subject of the harassment, it should still be investigated in full.
  • All the recommendations of the report were implemented by the CEO, improving working practices and culture and implementing clear boundaries around “banter”.
  • By carrying out a full investigation, in line with policy and best practice and in taking such direct action, the Company has reduced the likelihood of any legal proceedings being brought for failures under the Equality Act and associated reputational damage.
  • Whilst a claim could be brought for unfair dismissal, in ensuring fair process was followed at each stage in accordance with the Company’s policy, the chance of being able to successfully defend any such claim is greatly increased.  
  • The employee did not appeal the decision. 

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