Harassment takes many forms, occurs on a variety of grounds and may be directed at one person or many people. In general terms, it can be described as unwanted behaviour that a person finds intimidating, upsetting, embarrassing, humiliating or offensive. It is essential to remember that it is not the intention of the perpetrator that is key in deciding whether harassment has occurred, but whether the behaviour is unacceptable by normal standards and is disadvantageous or offensive to the recipient.

Sexual harassment can be a significant workplace problem and can affect both men and women. It is unwanted verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature. If the behaviour is 'unwanted' it is harassment.

Dealing with complaints

Complaints should not be ignored but investigated swiftly and confidentially, whilst ensuring the rights of all are protected. An employer who fails to investigate complaints and places themselves at risk because of their vicarious liability for the actions of their employees. Procedures should provide formal and informal mechanisms for raising complaints. Often matters can be handled informally without the need of formal procedures. Clear time-scales should be set for the resolution of any complaints. 

Advice and counselling

Complainants should ideally have support from a 'counsellor' who can give informed advice in strict confidence and without pressure. Counsellors should be volunteers, be independent of investigations and should not provide evidence in any formal proceedings. They should be drawn from the workforce and be carefully selected and trained. They should receive ongoing support from management. They should understand the nature of the issues related to different forms and grounds of harassment and intimidating behaviour and be able to talk with complainants privately. Their objective should be to help complainants to decide what course of action to take by discussing the various options available.

Counselling can also be of immense value to individuals whose behaviour is unacceptable to others. They may be unaware of, or insensitive to, the impact of their actions. Counselling may help them to modify and moderate their behaviour and prevent further incidents.

Any decision to progress a complaint to a more formal procedure should rest with the individual who feels that he or she has been the subject of sexual harassment. However, complainants should be encouraged not to ignore behaviour that makes them uncomfortable but to take steps so that the behaviour stops. The perpetrator should be made to understand that his or her behaviours are unwanted and unacceptable and that they must stop. 

Informal procedures

Complaints should preferably be dealt with internally and informally. This is better for all concerned as solutions can be reached speedily, with minimum embarrassment and risk to confidentiality. It pays to act quickly to avoid disruption and to mitigate any potential risk to the organisation.

In many cases it is sufficient for the recipient of harassment to address the problem with the alleged perpetrator, making it clear that his or her behaviour is unwanted and unacceptable. But if the employee finds this difficult, stressful or embarrassing, the informal procedures should make it possible for the employee to seek support from a work colleague, an appropriate manager or a representative from Human Resources to facilitate the discussion.

Formal procedures

More serious harassment, an individual's preference for how the matter should be handled and situations where an informal approach has failed may demand that more formal procedures and actions should be taken. Some modification to grievance procedures may be needed for this and employees must know to whom they should make a complaint. Harassment should be treated as a disciplinary offence. A record of complaints and investigations should always be made. These should include the names of the people involved, dates, the nature and frequency of incidents, action taken, follow-up and monitoring activities.

After the procedure

If the complaint is of a serious nature and is upheld, formal disciplinary action should be taken against the perpetrator and disciplinary sanctions including dismissal should be considered. 

Where a less serious complaint is upheld it may be advisable to relocate or transfer one or other of the parties involved to a different department or location. 

If a complaint is not upheld, a voluntary transfer of one of the employees may also be appropriate.

In all circumstances it is important to check harassment has stopped and there has been no victimisation or retaliation.

Communications, training and monitoring 

Communicate policy to ensure all employees know their rights and personal responsibility under the policy and understand the commitment the organisation has to provide a harmonious, risk-free environment. Employees should be made aware of who they can speak to within the organisation for support and how to make any complaints they may have. This policy can be conveyed during induction and training programmes and through senior management support. Training can also prevent harassment being accepted or condoned; this should cover unacceptable workplace 'banter' or 'locker room' humour.

Harassment connected with the workplace can cause avoidable demoralisation, stress, anxiety and ill-health. Organisations should endeavour to eliminate all forms of harassment if only for these reasons alone. A workplace environment that is free from fear, intimidation and hostility enables people to contribute more effectively to organisational success and to achieve higher levels of job performance and satisfaction.