Unfortunately, sexual misconduct allegations are in the news again. Broadcasters, BBC and Channel 4, are conducting immediate in-depth internal inquiries, highlighting their concern over behaviours alleged in the workplace by an individual who’s also subject to a Metropolitan Police investigation.
These are obviously sensitive and challenging issues that can have far-reaching consequences for all parties involved. As the custodians of organisational culture and employee well-being, those responsible for HR matters play a crucial role in effectively managing these allegations.
- Establish Clear Policies and Procedures: The foundation for managing such allegations begins with well-defined policies and procedures. Organisations should have a comprehensive anti-harassment policy in place, outlining the definition of what constitutes sexual misconduct, the reporting process, and the consequences for such actions. These policies must be communicated to all employees and regularly updated to align with evolving legal and societal standards.
- Act Promptly and Impartially: When a complaint is made, it’s crucial to act promptly and impartially. The employer should provide a safe, confidential environment for reporting and ensure that the accused employee is treated fairly, and with due process. The complainant should be made aware of the steps being taken while respecting confidentiality.
- Investigate Thoroughly and impartially: This may involve interviews with the complainant, the accused, and any potential witnesses. The investigator should be well-trained in investigative techniques, and if proving too challenging for staff internally, external experts may be brought in to ensure impartiality. If the accusations are sufficiently serious and potentially criminal in nature, the matter would need to be escalated to the authorities for the police to conduct their own investigation. *[see 6 Legal Advice]
- Preserve Evidence: It’s essential to preserve any evidence relevant to the case, such as emails, text messages, social media posts or witness statements. This documentation can be invaluable in establishing the facts and making informed decisions and may be requested by Police if it becomes a criminal investigation.
- Temporary Measures: While the investigation is ongoing, dependent on the severity of the claims, employers should consider implementing temporary measures to protect the complainant, such as reassigning the accused (not the complainant) to a different department or asking them to work from home. Careful consideration should be given to suspending the accused as there may be legal consequences*.. These measures ensure the safety of all parties involved and prevent potential retaliation or victimisation.
- Legal Advice: *Sexual misconduct cases can have legal implications. Employers should seek legal advice to ensure that all actions taken are following the correct procedures and in line with employment legislation.
- Maintain Confidentiality: The investigating team should emphasise the importance of maintaining confidentiality throughout their process of review to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. Leaking information prematurely can unnecessarily harm the reputations of employees and also damage the organisation’s own credibility.
- Follow-Up and Support: Investigators should act swiftly but without undue pressure to communicate the findings and any resulting actions to both parties. The accused should be given an opportunity to respond and may face disciplinary measures if the complaint is upheld. For the complainant, you will need to consider if they are told the outcome as this will be dependent on your procedures and data privacy notice. Employers should provide access to counselling or support services to help employees cope with the emotional aftermath of the incident. Both parties should be offered mental health support throughout the investigation process.
- Documentation: When investigating, all records should be carefully and accurately retained and kept confidential. A clear process, from the initial complaint to the resolution serves as a legal safeguard and helps in assessing the effectiveness of the organisation’s response.
- Prevention and Training: Organisations should aim to have a culture of zero tolerance of sexual harassment. Employees and Managers should be provided with regular training on unacceptable behaviours including recognising, reporting, and preventing sexual harassment. Further, creating a culture of mutual respect and dignity can significantly reduce the likelihood of such incidents.
- Continuous Improvement: The employers should review and analyse each case to identify areas for improvement in policies and procedures. Regularly updating and enhancing anti-harassment measures and steps ensures a safer workplace for all.
- Public Relations: Depending on the severity and public nature of the case, employers may need to work closely with PR and communications specialists to manage external messaging with the objective of delivering clear, succinct and professional statements.
In conclusion, managing allegations of sexual misconduct is a complex and delicate responsibility for employers. By proactively establishing clear policies, conducting thorough investigations, and providing support to all parties involved, the organisation can contribute to a workplace culture that is safe, respectful, and free from harassment.
The goal is not only to address individual cases but also to prevent future incidents through education and a commitment to fostering a culture of zero tolerance and mutual respect .
If you would like any legal advice concerning these matters, please contact Sean McDonough, Managing Partner and Head of Employment. In addition, if you need assistance with developing company HR policies, carrying out investigations, or developing a zero-tolerance culture please contact Lucy Cotterell – HR Consultant