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Caroline Doran-Millett

Female staff face daily sexual harassment in online meetings leaving employers exposed, says lawyer

Female employees are facing unacceptable levels of daily sexual harassment in online meetings and in online messaging services, reports a leading employment lawyer.

The increase in working remotely has seen a corresponding increase in female staff receiving sexist comments about their appearance on online meetings.

Comments have included references to wearing more make-up or wearing more revealing clothing, and increased concerns about sexist and offensive jokes being circulated in team message groups.

However, staff are reluctant to rock the boat because of lack of job security, not knowing who to complain to or not believing that anything will be done.

In more extreme cases, there have been examples of female staff have joined Zoom and Team meetings to find a male colleague in the bath, colleagues exposing themselves, whether inadvertently or otherwise, and even involved in explicit sexual acts.

Caroline Doran Millett, an international partner in the employment law team at Royds Withy King and whose clients include employees at some of the largest financial services and technology businesses in the UK and the US, says that businesses are failing to protect staff with out-of-date harassment policies that do not reflect the widespread shift to hybrid working patterns.

“Female employees are often put in uncomfortable or intolerable positions, humiliated in front of their male colleagues,” says Caroline. “Many do not know how to respond and feel that the only response is to see it as a joke. It isn’t. Employers are leaving themselves exposed to employment tribunal claims.”

Royds Withy King and Fram Search, a financial services recruiter, conducted a straw poll of 100 financial services businesses on 15 October 2021 and found that 90 percent had not updated harassment policies in the past two years despite the largest shift in working patterns in a generation.

Caroline adds: “Employers are liable for the harassment of staff wherever they work. They need to be able to demonstrate that they have taken meaningful and reasonable steps to prevent harassment. This does not appear to be happening in many instances.

“It is not acceptable for staff to face daily harassment online, whether intended or not. Employers who do not address face unlimited fines in employment tribunals and sanction from the Financial Conduct Authority which views non-financial misconduct as serious as financial misconduct.”

The Government recognises this as a widespread issue, having launched a consultation that would create a legal obligation for employers to take positive steps to stop harassment in the workplace rather than simply react to it. No date for legislation has been proposed.

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