Employers should learn the lessons from the Lord Rennard scandal

Commenting on the allegations of sexual harassment committed by the Liberal Democrat's former chief executive Lord Rennard, Aidan Loy, Associate at QualitySolicitors BHP says:

The amount of newsprint devoted to Lord Rennard and allegations of harassment (to say nothing of other, liturgical) figures highlights yet again the importance of dealing fairly, and quickly with accusations of sexual harassment.

Employers clearly need to ensure a safe working environment, and part of this is a need to ensure that employees do not suffer unwanted sexual attention. It seems trite to say it in 2013, since the relevant legislation was passed nearly 40 years ago, but the difficulties in which the Liberal Democrats currently find themselves is all too common.

It is all very well to have policies in place for such eventualities, but unless they are known to all, and acted upon when required, they can amount to little more than window dressing.

Tribunals will give short shrift to employers without such policies, but also show little patience when such policies are more honoured in the breach.

Clearly, any allegation needs to be investigated. This is not to say such an investigation leads inevitably to a finding of culpability: investigations must be timely, thorough and fair, retaining objectivity throughout.  Just as there are those suffering from harassment, there are also those falsely accused, and both parties deserve an unbiased, objective investigation seeking the truth.

Inevitably, it is often the case that such accusations often deal with occurrences when there are no independent witnesses. How then to judge the veracity of claims?

In the Rennard case, the frequency, detail and independence of claims tend to indicate – in the absence of a large scale conspiracy – a pattern of behaviour which may indeed indicate harassment. Certainly it would bear thorough investigation – a conclusion no doubt now arrived at by the Deputy Prime Minister in view of the criticism of his earlier investigation which, because of its apparently perfunctory nature, now gives fuel to those crying ‘cover-up’, to say nothing of its failure to succour any victims should the allegations prove true.

What, then, should have been done? It seems obvious that more emphasis on interviewing complainants than the accused may have borne fruit. But how to obtain that information? There is no duty on an employer to, say, inform the police on receipt of such allegations, and many will be nervous about the damage to reputation of staff so accused if, ultimately, the allegations prove groundless.

However, no reasonable employer, on researching accusations thoroughly and impartially, should have much to fear in this regard, if the investigation was unbiased and thorough. It is true that the common law regards ‘the merest touching’ without permission as assault, and so even without the raft of employment legislation we now possess any individual so treated has grounds for action and, if necessary, a complaint to the police.

The solution to such problems is, therefore, plain. What is equally obvious is that failure to act, or to fail to enquire deeply enough, not only deeply disadvantages employees, but can also cause catastrophic damage to the reputation of any organisation. Paying only lip service to preventative policies can be a recipe for disaster.

Posted in: Employment law

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