It has been over a year since the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) published the new Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment & Harassment at Work. Since then, the Workplace Relations Commission most recent Annual Report has cited an increase of 37% of referrals under the Employment Equality legislation compared to the previous year. Employers must ensure that the Dignity at Work policies are fully compliant with the Code of Practice and that appropriate training on the meaning and effect of the policies is provided to all Employees in order to ensure that dignity and respect at work is given the weight it deserves.

The Code aims to promote the development and implementation of policies and procedures that create an environment that protects Employees from sexual harassment and harassment in the workplace.

The Code aims to provide guidance to Employers, Trade Unions and Employees on:

  • The meaning of sexual harassment and harassment in the workplace
  • How it can be prevented
  • Steps to ensure procedures are in place to deal with the issue and how to prevent it reoccurring

As well as defining what constitutes sexual harassment and harassment, the Code also reiterates that Employers are legally responsible for any harassment suffered by an Employee in the course of their work unless the Employer can demonstrate that they took reasonable and practical steps to prevent the harassment, reverse the effects of it and to prevent it happening again.

The Code highlights the importance of Organisations having a policy on harassment and sexual harassment as part of their workplace equality strategies.

It also reiterates that Employees, including those in management and all other positions of responsibility, should be made aware of the policy as part of any formal induction process and, that the policy is regularly reviewed to ensure it is fully compliant with the latest legislation and best practice.

The “essential elements” of harassment outlined in the Code are behaviours that “must firstly be unwelcome”, that “the behaviour must have the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity”, and that “the intention of the perpetrator of the sexual harassment or harassment is irrelevant.”

Protections afforded to Employees extend to harassment by the Employer, fellow Employees, clients, and customers as well as “other business contacts including any person with whom the Employer might reasonably expect the Employee to come into contact in the workplace”.

The Code outlines that Organisations should provide training to managers, supervisors, and all staff on strategies to prevent harassment by someone who is deemed competent with the appropriate qualifications, training and experience. This person does not necessarily have to be an Employee.

An update included in the new Code states that the harassment policy should include a statement encouraging Employees to challenge harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace and that Employees must respect the dignity of others in the workplace.

There is also a new concept of designating a ‘senior level champion’ outlined in the new Code of Practice, who would act as an independent voice advocating for a diverse workplace culture, free of harassment and sexual harassment, and where all Employees feel respected. This would be a matter for each particular Organisation to determine what is feasible, given size and resources.

The new Code further states that it is now recognised that harassment may take place via social media and that this must be reflected in an Employer’s policy.

What Can Employers Do?

There are measures that Employers can implement to help raise awareness and understanding of what constitutes harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace and how to report same. Such measures include:

  • Continuous promotion and reinforcement of a positive workplace culture, through D&I training and a general assurance of a safe working environment.
  • Development of effective Anti-Sexual Harassment and Harassment policies, ensuring compliance with the new Code of Practice and ensuring that they are used and promoted regarding improper and proper behaviours. Promote awareness of these policies regularly.
  • Provide appropriate training as required for those managing complaints and for line management.
  • And, as per the Code, consider the appointment of a Senior Level Champion, where feasible given size and resources.