Targeting an employee because of their age, disability, race, religion or beliefs, gender or sexual orientation, are all forms of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.
As with all employees, those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) are protected under the Act against any direct or indirect discrimination and harassment throughout the term of their employment, including during the recruitment stage and probation period.
From violating an individual’s dignity, to creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, harassment must not be tolerated and should always be reported to an employer, who can then seek legal advice and guidance on how to resolve the situation.
If employers of small businesses make their staff aware of what constitutes acceptable behaviour from the very start of their employment, teams will be unified in working together to eliminate harassment of any kind, before it becomes an issue.
Unfortunately, this can’t be said for every small business and cases of harassment in the workplace against LGBT+ employees still occur on a regular basis.
So, what should an employer should do once a LGBT+ employee alleges they have been harassed in the workplace?
Listen and stay objective
No matter what the circumstances are, always stay open-minded and never pre-judge. An employee is confiding in you in good faith that their complaint will be handled in a professional manner. Once you are made aware of what the situation is, you can then take action.
Make sure any communication with the alleged victim follows company policy. Always avoid making promises that cannot be kept, even if they are being made in good faith, as giving an employee false hope could backfire should the dispute escalate.
Protect the employee
Depending on the seriousness of the allegation, consider if the employee affected needs counselling. They may even need to be protected, so it is fundamental employers don’t take inadvertent action that could be detrimental to the complainant, as this could be viewed as victimisation.
From the offset of a dispute, employers should monitor employee engagement. This can be done through regular one-to-ones and full team meetings with staff. Keeping on track of what is happening within the business or organisation and keeping a check on employee satisfaction can help to avoid the problem escalating further.
Managing the complaint
In most circumstances, a complaint, if minor, can be dealt with efficiently and in a timely manner, but if the employee’s harassment claim is serious, employers may need to seek advice from HR professionals who are trained in handling such issues.
Seeking and taking on HR advice early on will ensure the correct procedures are being followed and will help employers to avoid falling at the first hurdle.
Investigating the claim
Always ensure policy guidelines are carefully followed throughout the investigation stage. While there is no legal requirement for businesses and organisations in the UK to have a policy on harassment, discrimination and bullying, it is a good way of demonstrating a company’s commitment towards raising awareness in this area and preventing discrimination against the sexual orientation of staff.
When talking to the complainant and the accused, assure them a fair and just investigation will take place. Listen to each party’s timeline of events and interview all relevant witnesses, while taking note of the facts.
Hopefully, by this point an employer will have enough evidence from the investigation to attempt to reach a decision on whether the accused should be disciplined and, if so, which discipline is the most appropriate considering the circumstances.
In the worst-case scenario, the issue could be escalated to an employment tribunal. There will always be instances in which dispute cases need to be taken further, however, in most cases, if small businesses work with their employees for the benefit of everyone, disputes can be resolved effectively and efficiently.
Learning from experience
After the issue has been resolved, it is important to ensure it doesn’t happen again. If staff of small businesses are briefed regularly about what behaviour constitutes harassment from the offset, it can create a positive workplace culture, while demonstrating that the employer took all reasonable preventative steps.
Employers can also ask staff to re-read the company’s anti-harassment policy annually and confirm in writing.
Overall, small businesses should strive towards creating an environment of respect and open communication. If staff members respect each other, cases of harassment of any kind will naturally occur less.
It can be tempting to rush through procedures and skip steps in an attempt to get a quick, and desired, result. But taking the time to make sure things are done correctly will not only reassure LGBT+ employees that their concerns are being taken seriously, it can also help to avoid any come back on the business or organisation, should the issue escalate.
Kirsten Cluer is an HR Consultant and owner of Cluer HR
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