Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate romance and relationships; however, it might not be all hearts and flowers for employers. Celebrating the occasion can lead to an increase in claims of sexual harassment at work, especially due to the increasing awareness and understanding within this area. Kate Palmer, from employment law firm, Peninsula, looks further.
Sexual harassment can take place where there is unwanted conduct relating to sex, or of a sexual nature, which causes the recipient or any person witnessing the conduct to feel that their dignity has been violated or it has created an intimidating, humiliating, hostile or degrading environment.
There is a risk that traditional Valentine’s Day gestures can lead to incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace where these are unwanted by employees. For example, take the Valentine’s Day card. Although the employee giving the card may view the card’s message as nice, funny or romantic, the words written in a card can be viewed as unwanted conduct which goes on to create the necessary environment. There has been a recent example of this where an employment tribunal found a factory worker was sexually harassed by her manager after a crude comment in her birthday card led her to feel humiliated.
It’s not just cards, however. Valentine’s Day emails, instant messages, presents or physical gestures can all increase the risk of sexual harassment taking place. Even where the intentions of the employees are good, it is the perception of the person claiming sexual harassment that will be looked at. A tribunal has even found that an employee was subjected to sexual harassment when colleagues repeatedly, but good-naturedly, tried to set them up with another member of staff.
To ensure sexual harassment is not occurring in the workplace, on Valentine’s Day or at any other time, employers can take positive steps to increase awareness and deter staff. One of the most effective deterrents will be having a clear, well-drafted sexual harassment policy which outlines the rules on acceptable, and unacceptable, conduct within the workplace. The policy can also state how to make complaints once harassment has occurred and it should also give an indication of the consequences of sexually harassing colleagues. Training should be provided to all members of staff and it will be useful to include real-life examples of what can be seen as sexual harassment.
In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, and on the day itself, a gentle reminder to employees about what is acceptable in the workplace can be an effective way of reducing the risk of sexual harassment taking place. Employees can also be told to exchange Valentine’s Day cards and gifts outside the workplace during personal time and managers should lead by example in this area.