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Sexual harassment and home working: what boards need to know

By Jessica Tasman-Jones

This article is brought to you by Agenda, an FT Specialist publication that focuses on corporate boards

Sexual harassment at work has slipped in importance for company boards, says a new survey. In a poll of 62 US directors by Agenda, nearly a fifth (19.2 per cent) said sexual harassment “is not a board issue”. Three years ago the figure was 12.2 per cent.

In the same period, the proportion of US directors who said sexual harassment was the responsibility of the entire board fell from 42.7 per cent to 37 per cent.

Experts say such attitudes could leave employers open to new risks and that policies may need to be modified, especially with some employees working from home.

Allegations can cause significant reputational damage especially if they involve harassment by senior management, says Suzanne Caveney, a legal director and employment specialist at Eversheds Sutherland, the law firm.

In the UK, employers are always a party to proceedings in a tribunal and will probably have to bear the cost of any compensation, says Caveney. The government wants to increase employers’ responsibilities in preventing sexual harassment at work.

After the #MeToo movement made headlines in 2017, many boards decided that dealing with sexual harassment should be a priority. Directors implemented or improved procedures covering areas such as staff reporting, data gathering and relationship disclosure.

Since the pandemic, however, many boards have failed to reexamine their policies, says Mark Freebairn, head of board and CFO practices at Odgers Berndtson, the recruitment firm.

“The board should have an active interest in the steps that their company takes to prevent harassment,” Caveney says, “particularly because the workplace has changed so significantly in recent years. [This has brought] risks that did not previously arise.”

Examples of sexual harassment can include “jokes” or “banter” over social media or chat groups; inappropriate emojis, comments about a colleague’s clothes or even comments about their home when it is glimpsed over video calls.

Caveney says sexual harassment is often part of a pattern of behaviour. Muting a colleague or preventing them from making a contribution to online meetings could be regarded as controlling.

Office risks have also changed since people began to return to work after the first waves of Covid. Working in smaller groups may cause some staff to feel more vulnerable, says Nikki Pound, women’s officer for the Trades Union Congress.

The board should satisfy itself that their company has measures in place to identify and challenge inappropriate behaviour quickly and robustly, says Caveney.

The Employment Tribunal, the UK independent body that handles legal disputes on employment law, sets high standards for employers’ defences, Caveney says.

Policies and procedures should include guidance on online meeting behaviour and etiquette, says Femi Otitoju, founder of EW Group, a diversity and inclusion consultancy. She says the board should also see data on reports, investigations and outcomes so that it can monitor and respond to trends.

This article is based on a story written by Amanda Gerut for Agenda.

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