Employees who feel they are being harassed should firstly approach their line manager (if appropriate). If that fails they should go to HR. Most employers will have grievance or anti-harassment policies for dealing with such issues.
For an employer, having policies to deal with such situations is essential. So is having a structure to educate/remind employees about appropriate workplace behaviour. This should be repeated periodically, for example every 18 months. Also, employers must ensure that line managers, who are the eyes and ears of the employer, are trained to identify and deal with potential issues rather than ignoring them. Many disputes that reach the Employment Tribunal start off as minor incidents, but mushroom rapidly. Claims bring a risk of financial loss and media exposure for all involved. What employees rarely appreciate is that they can be held personally liable to pay compensation for their behaviour. That an employee did not intend to cause offence or was “only joking” is irrelevant.
If an employee (irrespective of seniority) has behaved inappropriately, then the employer must take appropriate disciplinary action, which could include dismissal for serious misconduct.
Paul Reeves is a partner at Stephenson Harwood specialising in advising employers on handling grievance and disciplinary issues.