More than 2,600 people have signed a petition calling for the end of ‘forced hugs’ and ‘harassment’ at fashion retailer Ted Baker. The company has been under significant pressure over the past week after a series of revelations from current and former employees accused founder and CEO of the company, Ray Kelvin, of a culture of “forced hugging” in the workplace.
The petition claimed that there had been more than 50 recorded incidents of alleged harassment at the fashion brand, with employees complaining about Mr Kelvin’s inappropriate behaviour towards members of staff. Staff have alleged that “the CEO always wants a hug from every member of staff” and claimed that Mr Kelvin even had a rug near his desk marking “the Hug Zone”. Another employee claimed that the CEO made staff members “slow dance” with him at their desks and forced them to sit on his knee in view of other employees.
An initial statement from Ted Baker in response to the allegations stated that “hugs have become part of Ted Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon”. However, after intense media scrutiny and a fall in its share prices by 15%, the retailer has confirmed that it intends to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations of harassment.
Sexual harassment in the workplace has been a frequent headline in 2018, from the start of the #MeToo movement to the recent allegations made against Top Shop retail mogul, Sir Philip Green only a few weeks ago. Indeed, a recent study by the Fawcett Society has found that there has been a significant rise in the number of employees who would now report or speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace.
So what should employers do to avoid a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace?
Employers should firstly be aware that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under the Sex Discrimination (NI) Order 1976. Regardless of the intention of the harasser, if the unwanted conduct relates to the sex of the individual and “has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” it will be considered sexual harassment. This definition covers a vast range of behaviour and whilst something such as a “hug” may appear harmless, the subjective nature of harassment means that even “office banter” may not be as innocent as those participating think.
Employers therefore need to be live to the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace and should seek to ensure that all employees have received adequate equality and diversity training, with an emphasis on what is acceptable behaviour in the workplace, and indeed, what is not acceptable. It is essential that employers enforce their Dignity at Work and Harassment policies and should ensure that any complaints made about sexual harassment should be taken seriously.
It is important that businesses can point to an appropriate grievance procedure which ensures that any complaints can be dealt with appropriately and efficiently. This may involve an independent investigation and where appropriate and necessary, suspension of those accused of such behaviour. Employers should also be proactive by encouraging a culture of reporting within the workplace. Finally, it is vital that employers recognise that they have a duty of care towards employees in such situations, and in a #MeToo world should endeavour to ensure that all employees feel respected in the workplace.
Amy Barr is a solicitor in Worthingtons Solicitors in Belfast specialising in employment law and regularly provides ongoing advice and assistance to employers on a range of employment law matters. For advice on workplace issues or on-site Dignity at Work training for staff, please contact Amy on 02890434015 or firstname.lastname@example.org.