Over the last few weeks it has been impossible to avoid stories in the news about frisky priests, lecherous politicians and, of course, Jimmy Savile allegedly abusing women and girls both at the BBC and various hospitals around the country. The common thread running through all these stories is the corporate cover up/glossing over of women's (and men's) claims that they were subjected to inappropriate behaviour in their place of work. In all these cases the victims tried to speak up about what they were being subjected to but their claims were not taken seriously by their employers or even the police.
Under the Equality Act 2010 employers have a duty to provide their employees with a working environment free from any sort of intimidating or unwanted behaviour – and that covers not only sexual or racial discrimination but discrimination on the grounds of colour or ethnic origin, gender, marital status (including civil partnership), pregnancy or childbirth, age, religious or philosophical belief and, most recently, discrimination against those undergoing gender re-assignment. Employers are also legally obliged to protect their employees from any sort of abusive or discriminatory behaviour by members of the public on their premises.
Employers can make their lives easier by ensuring that this is made clear to all employees when they join the company, and re-enforcing it in company handbooks and other literature. Many hospitals and other public buildings also have clear signs showing that they will not tolerate abusive behaviour towards their staff. However, it is also vital that employers provide an environment where employees can safely approach a manager if they feel they have been subjected to unwanted, inappropriate or discriminatory behaviour and that their claims will be taken seriously and investigated.
It would be great to think that in the 21st century we would no longer need legislation to protect staff in this way, but the truth is that discrimination and harrassment still exist and the law is there to remind employers of their responsibilities.