Posted by Isobel Cairns, Trainee Solicitor
HR professionals – be proactive not reactive when it comes to sex discrimination claims
In the last year there has been a 69 per cent jump in the number of sex discrimination claims brought to British employment tribunals in the year to March. The figures from the Ministry of Justice for the year 2018-19 showed that 9,340 claims were lodged at tribunal, up from 5,522 the previous year.
New figures show, sexual discrimination claims within the workplace have soared to a five-year high in the wake of the Me Too and Shame on you Warwick movements.
Increased awareness of the issues and the removal of tribunal fees, now means individuals are becoming much more likely to come forward calling out discrimination in the workplace and bringing claims for compensation.
What is sex discrimination and what form does it take?
Put simply, sex discrimination occurs when an individual is treated unfairly because they are either male or female.
There are four main types of discrimination:
An individual is treated differently and, in particular, less favourably to others because of their sex. An example of this would be advertising a job and saying it is better suited to male applicants. Treating someone less favourably can be broken down into three different avenues. Someone could be treated less favourably because of their own sex, their perceived sex or their association with another person’s sex.
This type of discrimination can occur where a workplace rule, procedure or practice is applied to all employees, but it clearly disadvantages some individuals of a particular sex. For example, a requirement that job applicants must be six feet tall could be met by significantly fewer women than men. In some limited circumstances, indirect discrimination may be legally justified although this can be difficult.
Harassment is essentially unwanted conduct relating to a person’s sex or conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
An example of sex-based harassment could be derogatory jokes about women generally which a particular person finds offensive. An example of sexual harassment could be unwelcome physical touching, or telling jokes with sexual content.
When an employee suffers a ‘detriment’ that causes a disadvantage, damage or harm because the employee has made or supported a complaint about discrimination, given evidence relating to a complaint or discrimination or has raised a grievance, this is classed as victimisation. An example of this could be leaving an individual out of meetings or emails they would have normally been included in had it not been for the allegation of sex discrimination they made.
Once an allegation has been made, what should HR do?
If you are at all unsure of what you need to do as an HR team, you should seek legal advice. Making errors when dealing with allegations of sexual harassment can be costly in time, money and reputation if handled poorly.
In general HR teams should:
- follow the overarching principle of fairness when dealing with allegations of sexual discrimination in the work place
- investigate all allegations thoroughly, acting with integrity
- ensure responses and decisions are considered and not ‘knee jerk reactions’
- maintain confidentiality and be sensitive in your dealings with involved parties throughout any process, and
- at every step in dealing any allegation, keep the Acas Code in mind and follow its recommendations, alongside legal advice
The Acas Code can be found here.
How can HR be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to sexual discrimination claims?
HR professionals need to actively promote a culture where sex discrimination is not acceptable within the workplace in an attempt to reduce sexual discrimination claims.
Cultures can develop if supported with internal policies and procedures that are reaffirmed in daily practice. HR teams need to actively review their internal policies and procedures and bring them up to date. Negative terminology and stereotyping should be removed. The information contained within the organisation’s policy documents needs to be circulated and discussed regularly to embed the positive work culture.
It is good practice to run internal training to educate the workforce. Alongside this, and in order to maintain consistency between HR teams and managers, it may also be advisable to run separate training specifically for managers. This is because very often the managers are the first to hear about any complaints and if they are well trained, they may be able to deal with the issues before they escalate.
Organisations and individuals need to consider how to deal with unconscious bias. The nature of unconscious bias is that individuals will often not recognise when their personal bias is unfairly impacting on others. As part of educating your employees about discrimination, address unconscious bias and how it can be managed.
We can help
Our Employment & HR team regularly provide training for HR professionals and managers within organisations both on-site or in our offices. In many circumstances, employees will go to their managers prior to informing HR of any allegations. It is imperative that managers are able to confidently deal with allegations and respond appropriately.
If you have any questions about our training offering or require any advice please contact our Employment & HR team.
0800 051 8054 Email us
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