Nearly half the attendees at Walkers' recent workplace culture conference were aware of sexual harassment incidents having taken place at their work.

Attendees at the events held in Jersey and Guernsey last month were asked a series of questions which suggest that just under half were aware of sexual harassment in the workplace, but that some of the incidents had not been investigated, and that, when investigations had been conducted, this was typically done internally.

The audiences were largely HR professionals who would normally be aware of reported incidents and investigations within their organisations.

Aggregated figures for the Jersey and Guernsey audiences showed that:

  • 45% were aware of sexual harassment having taken place
  • 37% were aware of sexual harassment having been investigated
  • 30% were aware of external investigators having been appointed

The results varied slightly between the Islands – Jersey attendees were more likely (49% compared to 41% in Guernsey) to be aware of sexual harassment, more likely (42% compared to 32% in Guernsey) to have been aware of an investigation, and more likely (37% compared to 24% in Guernsey) to be aware of an external investigator being appointed.

Senior Counsel Sarah Ash, a member of Walkers' Channel Islands employment law team specialising in advising on discrimination and harassment, said: "These are interesting results – we very deliberately did not define sexual harassment in our poll, so the incidents known to 45% of our audience could range from a one off inappropriate comment to criminal assaults.  As employment law practitioners, we at Walkers don't see many references from clients about sexual harassment, whether from employers looking to investigate, complainants or people accused, which suggests these incidents aren't being escalated into formal legal complaints.

"It is of particular concern to me that not all incidents of sexual harassment are being investigated.  There is likely to be a variety of reasons for this however failure to investigate known incidents of sexual harassment is undoubtedly exposing companies to employment risk and will have a negative impact on employers workplace culture.

"Responses to the question on external investigators indicate that using an external investigator is clearly the exception rather than the norm. Whilst many investigations can be handled internally my experience is that you typically see external investigators appointed when one of the people involved is senior and an external investigator is required to ensure that there is an independent and fair process which can be reassuring for the parties involved.  In addition, I have seen employers request independent investigations to look into workplace culture and practice so that they can address any issues proactively before they develop into more serious complaints. 

"Having practised in this area in London for more than ten years, sexual harassment has become a regulatory issue not just an HR one, and regulators including the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) are taking it very seriously.  Consequently UK employers are now taking it very seriously too, with many raising awareness in their organisations through training and implementing clear policies, encouraging employees to speak up so that issues can be addressed swiftly and taking a zero tolerance approach to this type of behaviour.

"It's clear that both Guernsey and Jersey will need to move in the same direction."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.