Friday 24 May 2019

With sexual harassment in the news, how do I deal with potential issues in my business?

Processes must be in place and followed in the correct manner following any complaint. Photo: Stock Image
Processes must be in place and followed in the correct manner following any complaint. Photo: Stock Image

Caroline McEnery

Q - With all the talk recently in the media of sexual harassment, I would like to know what is the correct manner when dealing with such a complaint?

A - It is fantastic that you are being proactive in learning how to manage this issue in advance of it ever arising. This concern may never arise in your organisation, however below is a short guide on what you should do in advance of such an allegation.

Every organisation should have or develop a policy in relation to dignity and respect at work policy. This will ensure that the process is carried out in an effective, professional, fair and consistent manner. Your code of practise might already be developed in house and may be an internal document - ask to see it. Your policy should be based on the question: what is dignity and respect in the workplace? It should also contain definitions of harassment and bullying, details about the company's complaints procedure and it should deal with the issue of confidentiality.

Legal aspects

Vicarious liability provides that where an employee commits wrongdoing in the course of their employment, he or she is directly liable for their action. You, as the manager/employer can be held vicariously liable for their actions because the employer is in control of the actions that the employee carries out in the course of their employment. The good news for you, as a manager/employer is that you can avoid liability if you can demonstrate you took steps to prevent an incident of harassment and if you can demonstrate that any complaints were dealt with after the incident.

The employment equality act requires employers to "take such steps that are reasonably practical to prevent an employee from doing that act or from doing in the course of their employment, acts of that description". The only way for you to fully demonstrate this is to ensure that your company has clear written policies in relation to equality and bullying/harassment.


It is advised that as a company you should provide appropriate training to any staff members who have staff management functions. Not all managers will have this skill set and such conflict resolution training should be rolled out in order to increase the chance of the complaint being dealt with at an early stage via the correct procedures.

This training should absolutely be kept under review in light of developments and best practice in this area and show management the basics in addressing grievances in the first instance.

The process

A typical company policy should have at least three routes for your employees to invoke should they so wish: Informal, Mediation and Formal. It is highly likely that in an allegation of sexual harassment it will be the formal route.

The employee needs to provide a written statement detailing the allegations. This allegation would be issued to the subject of complaint (SOC). Further investigatory meetings may take place with any witnesses, if deemed appropriate.

The decision regarding the outcome of the complaint will then be made to the complainant as either substantiated, unsubstantiated or malicious. If substantiated it will proceed to the disciplinary procedure with the SOC. If malicious, it will proceed to the disciplinary procedure with the complainant. If the grievance is unsubstantiated the grievance ends there. Remember, all procedures have the right to appeal.

Paper trail

The operation of a good grievance procedure requires the maintenance of adequate records. It is important to have a paper trail documenting each step of the grievance. Remember if this particular grievance ends up in the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), "if it isn't in writing it did not happen". If you cannot show you have given a fair procedure how can you expect the WRC to decide in your favour? Make sure that if an employee raises an issue that he/she is provided with the procedure and is fully aware of what will happen. If in doubt seek advice.

Caroline McEnery, is managing director of The HR Suite and a member on the Low Pay Commission. She is also author of 'The Art of Asking the Right Questions'. a manager's toolkit to all HR-related tips. Visit for more information.

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