Caroline Shafar, a highly experienced employment lawyer and director at By Design Group blogs about recent LGBTQ cases, new report findings and shares why all businesses should nominate a ‘diversity champion.’
We celebrated LGBTQ Pride Month in June to recognise the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on history. But whilst this month is a time to celebrate individuality and equality, it is also a reminder of the challenges and prejudice that some still face in society.
According to a report released by the TUC on 17 May 2019, nearly 68% of LGBT people have been sexually harassed at work. 43% had received comments of a sexual nature whilst 47% had been the subject of jokes. More than a quarter had received unwelcome verbal sexual advances and 42% had heard colleagues commenting or asking questions about their sex life.
A recent Irish case is a stark reminder of how persecution for your sexual preferences is still prevalent in the workplace. A worker in a restaurant brought a claim for discrimination having been subjected to a barrage of taunts and hateful homophobic comments from the company’s two directors and its staff.
Comments included “I hope I don’t catch the gay off the scarf” after the worker had borrowed a scarf off him. On another occasion they made fun of him for ordering “queer drinks” whilst another member of staff sent a message in a staff Whatsapp group saying, “Happy pride day you big queer”. The company was ordered to pay £17,000 in compensation.
For most of us, these comments are horrifying, and it is difficult to comprehend how, in this day and age, this behaviour exists, but it does. So, the question is, what should employers be doing about it?
What employers should be doing
It has been unlawful since 2003 to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation and sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 as is gender reassignment. But despite having legislation in place for so many years, the TUC’s report found 57% of people they asked chose not to report harassment because they thought it would have a negative effect on their relationships at work. Also, 44% considered that it would impact on their career development and 40% felt that the person responsible would not be sufficiently punished.
It is crucial that employers raise awareness of what behaviour is and is not acceptable in the workplace. They should promote a culture of tolerance for equality and diversity and lead from the top.
Office banter and calling people nicknames can be the most common forms of harassment and discrimination. What may be a joke to one person, is unacceptable to others.
A significant issue is stereotyping and making assumptions about people because of their sexual orientation. This can lead to more obvious behaviour such as harassment but also, and without realising, acts of unconscious bias.
Measures businesses can take
Employers should provide training for all staff to develop their understanding and awareness of each other. There should be education on what is and is not acceptable conduct including what can amount to derogatory comments, harassment and discrimination. Employees should be reminded that harassment and discrimination is about the person’s perception and not the intention of the alleged harasser.
For any good employer, they will have an Equality and Diversity Policy in place which will encompass the expected standards of behaviours and provide guidance on what employees should do if they have any concerns. We recommend having a ‘diversity champion’; a point of contact whom someone can go to for support, advice, to raise any concerns or even “come out to” at work.
Employers must actively manage complaints about potentially discriminatory treatment not only because such conduct cannot be condoned but swift action demonstrates that the organisation takes such issues seriously and provides a safe environment for their staff. Complaints must be dealt with, with empathy and if there is evidence of discriminatory conduct, in most cases disciplinary action should be taken.
In short, as with any discriminatory behaviour, there should be a zero tolerance policy which starts with the top and infiltrates to all levels.