Friday 20 September 2019

Sexual harassment issues in the workplace have surged by 200pc - leading law firm

Law firm Mason Hayes & Curran is dealing with a surge in workplace harassment cases

Stock image
Stock image
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Sexual harassment issues in the workplace have surged by 200pc in recent years, according to one of Ireland's leading law firms.

Melanie Crowley, partner at Mason Hayes & Curran, said the firm's lawyers are dealing with an increase in cases since the #Timesup movement swept across the globe.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, she said: "We have 23 lawyers on the employment and benefits team, so I am of the view that what we are coming across is probably a good measure of what is going on across the market.

"As a team, we have certainly seen an increase in the number of employment-related sexual harassment issues over the course of the past number of years.

"That increase is probably in the region of 200pc and the number of actual cases, for us, has probably increased by about 25-30pc since the beginning of #Metoo movement."

She warned that employers should have proper policies in place that make it clear to staff, "what constitutes harassment and, in particular, sexual harassment. Policies are no good if they are not communicated, so educating employees is important".

Citing some of the American tech companies, Ms Crowley said: "[They] do this particularly well.

"Employers should also have procedures in place for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment," she continued. "If caught and managed early, it should be possible to resolve most issues internally without recourse to litigation."

Alicia Compton, partner at William Fry, another of Ireland's top-five legal practices, has told the Sunday Independent that her firm is seeing a similar trend.

"I have seen a clear increase in the number of employment-related sexual harassment complaints in the past year," she said. "Individuals are less afraid than in the past to speak up about workplace behaviour unacceptable to them.

"In turn, many employers are reacting differently to how they might have done a few years ago, in that instead of hoping that a problem will just go away, they are trying to prevent harassment happening in the first place and will investigate allegations and take follow-up action."

Ms Compton said allegations of sexual harassment are always difficult for both employees to make and employers to deal with: "Maintaining confidentiality and affording fair procedure to those involved in an investigation is not easily done. This is particularly so where allegations of historic harassment are made.

"The nature of sexual harassment allegations, and the investigation procedure required, means that at the end of the process and despite the employer's best intentions, the employee who made the complaint or the employee against whom the complaint was made is going to be unhappy at the outcome. Often both parties will be unhappy."

She stressed that good quality HR policies and training delivered in clear terms explaining acceptable and unacceptable behaviour was vital if firms wanted to stay out of court: "Certainly the days of hoping that a sexual harassment allegation will somehow go away, or resolve itself without employer intervention, are gone."

Ireland is following an international trend. In France, reports of rape, sexual assault and harassment have leapt by almost a third following the international scandal surrounding the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

The rise, described as "exceptional", is believed to have been prompted by victims feeling empowered to come forward after the #BalanceTonPorc (squeal on the pig) campaign among the country's social media users.

While in the UK, half of all British women and a fifth of men have also been sexually harassed at work or a place of study, a BBC survey has found.

Elsewhere, researchers in Denmark found that sexual harassment by work colleagues has a greater impact on mental health than the same actions by clients or customers, according to a new study.

A new national survey on the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence in Ireland is currently under way and will examine sexual harassment in the workplace. The report will be the second such survey carried out in Ireland, 16 years after the previous SAVI report.

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News