How the civil service should deal with sexual harassment allegations

As claims and revelations engulf the worlds of politics and entertainment, Whitehall must make sure its procedures are up to scratch

Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA 

By Arran Heal

06 Nov 2017

The flood of accusations of sexual harassment against film producer Harvey Weinstein is making organisations of all kinds nervous. It was a figure central to an entire industry, with a long-standing reputation and seemingly impregnable power that was pricked like a bubble.

In the past week the UK government has hurried to show it is on the case – aware of the high risks involved in Parliament, where powerful individuals mix each day with teams of younger staff. It’s telling that the announcement of a strong line on sexual harassment has led to a series of immediate resignations.

No organisation is safe from allegations relating to current or historic behaviour, and the resulting problems for credibility, staff relationships, worsening grievances and tribunal cases. Civil service employers need to look at the risks involved to the organisation and their people and how they would cope with formal claims against staff and help victims.


Be proactive in encouraging openness and communication

As a starting point, departments need to ask whether their systems and approaches are fair and just, and whether they lead to the kind of confidence that encourages a victim to come forward. Having a "clear air" culture in the workplace is important for supporting good working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early. It also acts as a fundamental way to discourage inappropriate behaviour, pressures and secrecy.

Ensure there are clear policies in place to respond to a sexual harassment case

A knee-jerk response isn’t going to help. It’s important to consider the system to be followed, who’s responsible and what expertise is on hand. Who’s going have the initial conversation with the employee making an accusation - is that HR or the line manager, and do they have the skills to cope? Mediation can be useful in preventing an escalation of situations - but are there trained staff to do this? Or is there an external partner you can rely on? 

A first principle for any employer should be that there is never a justification for secrecy or fudge in these cases. Staff have to be able to trust in the professionalism and integrity of their organisation, and increasingly sexual harassment claims will be key moments in terms of proving strong and effective management.

Watertight investigations are critical

There are many risks associated with mishandled investigations, including the potential for investigation conclusions being challenged, claims of bias leading to employment tribunals, collapsing cases and humiliation; the cost of extensive management time up to senior levels; cases that keep running over long periods; and the effects on staff morale, relationships and the work environment for the long-term. 

There are basic principles that need to underpin the response and demonstrate a house that’s in order: any allegation needs to be treated seriously in the first instance - there should, for example, be an onus on the person facing an accusation to engage in the process, and not have the option to refuse any participation. Investigations need to be formal in terms of how they are organised, carried out and reported on; they need to be proportionate with the alleged offence (so the more serious the allegation, the more evidence should be gathered, more witnesses called and paths of inquiry followed to their logical end). 

There should never be an onus on the victim to be accommodating in terms of reaching a settlement (for the sake of the reputation of their employer or the name of the individuals involved). Investigations need to be undertaken as quickly as possible in the interests of both sides.

Be aware of the risks involved with using internal staff for investigations

Even if senior managers are brought in from a different department, with no association with the member of staff involved, there are always going to be loyalties and sympathies that cloud decision-making. Investigations run with internal resources tend to be slow, relying on the availability of senior staff, which can prolong anxieties and act as a barrier to victims (not wanting to extend the experience or after a time, even participate). 

A typical danger in investigations is an assumption that a panel involving senior leaders, used to a high level of control over their world, will be fair-minded. Training in fair decision-making can be needed among panel members involved in the investigations and resolving situations. A panel may well include HR and a staff representative, but the assumed power will usually lie with the senior leader or manager when there needs to be equality in terms of how views and perspectives are treated.

Build a reputation, a sense of confidence and resilience

Making use of external expertise to run investigations into complex cases can be useful in resolving situations, and to ensure that the employer is known and respected for its professional handling of difficult, sometimes ugly situations. Organisations need to be seen to have an even-handed response. If an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment is found guilty, it’s important departments ensure that sanctions are consistent. If one staff member is only given a rap over the knuckles while another at a different department is dismissed from their post for a similar offence then this can create suspicion and confusion and undermine confidence.

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