Dentists in England this week have been directed to ensure they have the appropriate policies in place to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. The email sent out to dentists by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) described workplace sexual harassment to being akin to the Health and Safety legislation stating that every practice must have the relevant policies and procedures in place.
The EHRC stated: "As an employer your organisation is legally liable for sexual harassment suffered by your employees in the workplace, and you have a duty of care to take all reasonable steps to prevent it."
So what exactly is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is defined in legislation as: behaviour or conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of:
- violating someone’s dignity or,
- creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them
Sexual harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.
According to the EHRC, sexual harassment can range from unwanted advances or requests for sexual favours, to verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. And it isn’t always of a sexual nature; for example, harassing a woman by making offensive comments about women in general is also considered as sexual harassment.
Both harasser and victim may be either a woman or a man, or the same sex. The harasser could be a supervisor, a co-worker or a patient. The victim could even be a person affected by the offensive conduct rather than the intended recipient. Fundamentally, harassment lies within the perception of the individual who feels they are being harassed.
Under the Equality Act 2010, anything done by an employee in the course of their employment is treated as having also been done by the employer regardless of whether the employer had knowledge of the conduct and/or approved the acts. An employer can, therefore, be held vicariously liable for sexual harassment perpetrated by an employee in the course of their employment.
A defence will only be available to an employer if they can show that they took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the employee from sexually harassing a colleague.
Such steps as advised by the EHRC would include:
- Having and implementing an equal opportunities policy and an anti-bullying and harassment policy, and reviewing these at appropriate intervals
- Ensuring that all employees are aware of the policies and their implications
- Training managers and supervisors on equal opportunities and harassment issues so they can spot issues and know how to deal with them
- Taking all complaints seriously and dealing with them appropriately and effectively, including taking disciplinary action where appropriate
At a time where research suggests sexual harassment cases in dental practices is on the rise, it is vital that preventative steps are taken by practices by ensuring everyone—from the employer, to any witnesses, to the victim—recognizes it and feels supported in speaking up.
Dental practices in England have been advised to either book a call with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to have a discussion on how they might implement sexual harassment procedures in their practice; or, if a practice feels it already has everything in place, to email the EHRC to confirm it.