Being accused of harassment at work is stressful, particularly if the accusation regards sexual harassment. When allegations surface, an employer has a duty of care to all parties involved and they must make sure they conduct a full investigation.
If you’ve been accused of workplace harassment, you may be suspended to allow an investigation to take place. As some types of harassment can be considered gross misconduct, it is understandable you will be extremely worried.
However, it is vital you remain calm and follow the process to ensure you have the opportunity to submit your side of the story.
Our guide will look at how harassment can play out in the workplace, alongside an overview of what you can expect during the investigation into an allegation of misconduct.
Accusations made might include allegations of bullying at work, verbal abuse, or sexual harassment.
See Also: Accused of gross misconduct at work.
What is Harassment at Work?
After you’ve been accused of harassment at work, it’s important to take some time to understand the types of behaviour that can be considered misconduct.
Sexual harassment occurs when an individual feels uncomfortable, violated, worried or threatened by the sexual behaviour of another employee or employer.
Whether or not the intention was to cause distress is not relevant. Any form of sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable.
Below are some common scenarios which would be considered sexual harassment at work. Some are more subtle than others:-
- Touching that is inappropriate and unwanted such as hugging, kissing, groping or massaging.
- Discussing or asking probing questions about an individual’s sex life and fantasies.
- Sexual gestures such as imitating sexual movements or hand and mouth gestures.
- Comments or jokes that carry a sexual suggestion.
- Staring at someone suggestively or inappropriately, along with leering.
- Showing or displaying posters or photos that are sexual or pornographic.
- Asking for sexual favours as a way to bribe an individual with a reward.
- Inappropriate sexual behaviour on social media or text and email.
- Starting and spreading rumours of a sexual nature of an individual.
- Catcalling or wolf whistling.
- Unwanted flirting
- Inappropriate comments about how someone is dressed.
- Invading someone’s personal space constantly.
- Indecent exposure
This list is not exhaustive and there will be other behaviours considered as sexual harassment. Some of the above can become a police matter due to being a violation of criminal law. This includes; upskirting, indecent exposure, stalking and sexual harassment that involves physical contact.
Despite inappropriate contact being one of the more obvious scenarios, there are many others. Anything that carries sexual innuendos and makes another person uncomfortable can be considered sexual harassment.
Bullying at Work
Bullying can also be grounds for being accused of harassment at work. It can involve verbal abuse, threatening behaviours, and even work sabotage.
Common examples of bullying include:-
- Spreading gossip about the victim.
- Exclusion from work meetings or social events.
- Overloading with work.
- Taking credit for the victims work or ideas.
Workplace bullying can have profound effects on mental wellbeing. It can cause increased absenteeism due to stress, and increased staff turnover. For this reason, many workplaces have robust policies and investigation processes in place when allegations of this type of workplace harassment are made.
Any form of verbal communication designed to belittle or demean a colleague in the workplace may be considered harassment.
Verbal harassment can create a hostile work environment for victims, which has an impact upon their mental health.
Common examples of verbal harassment include:-
- Personal comments about someone’s appearance.
- Offensive jokes.
- Criticism and negative comments designed to belittle the victim.
- Shouting or using offensive language.
Employers have a duty of care to protect employee’s mental wellbeing in the workplace, so allegations of verbal harassment are taken very seriously by many organisations.
What Laws Protect Employees from Harassment?
The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. It emphasises the individual’s right to feel safe at work and free from unwanted and unlawful sexual behaviour.
It also protects the employee’s right to be treated fairly when sexual harassment has taken place. This is in the case of turning down any advances or giving in to such behaviour.
The Equality Act defines sexual harassment as:-
- Any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that has been carried out by one person against another.
- This behaviour has made a person feel anxious, afraid, uncomfortable and violated.
The employer’s duty of care means that they must take any claims of sexual harassment seriously. This responsibility should reach all employees involved in the claim. The harassment doesn’t need to have taken place on work property. It may have occurred at a work event, through social media or over a Zoom meeting.
What Happens After an Accusation of Harassment at Work?
Once an allegation of harassment has been made in the workplace, this should trigger a formal investigation process. An employer cannot ignore any complaints of this nature and should refer to their harassment or sexual harassment policy.
It may be that the employee agrees to an informal resolution. However, it should still be kept on file and, if it is serious enough, other action taken.
Here is what may happen once such an accusation of harassment at work is made:-
A grievance will be raised either formally or informally. Most cases of harassment should be dealt with formally unless the complaint is a one off situation that wasn’t serious. A simple chat with the manager or HR may be sufficient for those wishing to keep it low key.
Lodging a formal grievance is, in most cases, the most appropriate form of action. This means the victim will lodge a formal grievance and lay out what has happened.
You will be named as the accused which means the employer needs to act accordingly and conduct a proper investigation to determine if you have engaged in misconduct.
Once a grievance has been raised, the employer will refer to their disciplinary policy . They have a duty of care towards both the accuser and the accused and should treat everyone fairly.
The employer will speak to the employee in question about their behaviour. They must tell the accused that a complaint has been made against them. They will be told that an investigation will now begin to determine the exact details of what has happened.
Anyone who is accused of harassment may be suspended from work pending an investigation, particularly if there has been an allegation of sexual harassment at work.
This will allow any necessary steps to be taken to determine what happened and what should happen as a result.
The suspension will be on full pay, as per the employee’s rights, and they should be treated fairly through this process. They should be given regular updates with an expected timeframe of the suspension.
Management or HR will carry out a full and thorough investigation into the harassment claims. This will mean speaking to key people such as any potential witnesses. There may be CCTV footage to go through or any saved Zoom meeting evidence.
Employers must talk to anyone who may be able to collaborate with the claims. It also means speaking with both the accused and the accuser in a formal meeting. This will take the form of an invitation to a disciplinary meeting at work.
Both sides must have their chance to talk openly about what has happened and submit evidence about what has happened.
After all the appropriate protocols have been followed, a decision will be made. Employers may enlist the help of a lawyer or HR consultant at this point. This is because everything must be done lawfully and fairly. The outcome of such a complaint will depend on many factors. We list some of the possible outcomes of a harassment complaint, below:
- The accused is found not guilty due to insufficient evidence or another solid reason.
- The accused may receive a verbal or written warning if it was isolated and considered less serious.
- The result of an investigation may be dismissal. Harassment is a serious matter and, if found guilty, will not continue in employment there.
- It may become a matter for the police if the harassment is serious or is a crime in the UK.
What to Do if You’ve Been Accused of Harassment at Work
Being accused of harassment in the workplace will be taken seriously. Employers must act on any complaints of this nature. You must remain calm and professional throughout the process. You should be treated fairly as per the Equality Act of 2010.
We share some tips on how to navigate the situation as best as possible under the circumstances:
- Stay calm, losing your cool will not help.
- Be fully compliant with the entire process, even if you are innocent.
- Be ready with your version of events, together with any evidence you have.
- Engage with any formal proceedings such as disciplinary meetings and suspension.
- Know your rights while you are suspended, such as receiving full pay.
- Be open and honest whenever you are questioned about anything.
- Have a read of all the possible harassment scenarios. Many people do not realise what they are doing is serious.
- Be aware that regardless of whether the employee felt uncomfortable or not, it can still be deemed a serious matter.
- Seek advice from Citizens Advice so you can check you are being treated fairly and lawfully.
You may disagree and argue that your actions were not harassment. However, it is important to note that harassment can be considered to have taken place, even if it was not your intention.
Dealing With False Accusations
An allegation of harassment can be career ending. Therefore, dealing with false accusations in the right manner is essential.
It is important to stay level headed throughout the ordeal and comply fully with the process that follows. It is also imperative to be sure you haven’t done anything that constitutes harassment.
You should seek legal advice as soon as possible. They will offer you the best advice on how to handle yourself through the procedures that will happen. The best way to deal with false accusations is to trust the process in front of you. Be compliant with all that is asked of you, get support and have all your evidence ready when it is your time to talk.
Malicious complaints can be very stressful to deal with. You have your reputation and own mental well being to think about too. One thing you should never, under any circumstances do, is approach the colleague in question. This can land you in a whole new disciplinary situation.
You may wish to consider putting in a complaint of your own once the matter is closed. After all, such accusations can have a detrimental effect on all aspects of your life. Being accused of harassment, particularly sexual harassment is very detrimental.
It can spill over into your relationships as well as those of your colleagues. It can also cause a great deal of stress and anxiety. You are entitled to complain if you were wrongly accused.
If You Have Been Unfairly Dismissed for Harassment
If you have been unfairly dismissed for harassment, it is essential to be aware of your next steps. You have rights, even once you have been fired. You can appeal the decision to dismiss you – your employer will then need to reconsider the case. At this point, you can submit any new evidence you may have accrued.
If this is unsuccessful, you have the right to begin legal proceedings. This involves taking your ex employer to a tribunal on the grounds of unfair dismissal. There are strict time frames in place for lodging such an appeal so it is important to act swiftly.