Fox and Partners’ recent research found the number of sex discrimination and harassment complaints in the legal industry dropped by a third in 2020. Our partner, Catriona Watt, commented on the likely impact of remote working. She advises vigilance and forward planning by firms in preparation for workers’ return to the office to prevent a rise in misconduct and harassment issues.

Key steps for firms to minimise the significant legal, regulatory and reputational risks of complaints include:

  • Fostering a “speak up” culture, which must be led by a clear message from the top of zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour
  • Relevant, clear and transparent processes and policies (dealing separately with sexual harassment and harassment relating to protected characteristics) in place are a good starting point to illustrate types of harassment, when disciplinary action may be taken and make clear aggravating factors, such as abuse of power, which will be taken into account. Policies minimise reactive decision-making and increase confidence by all in the handling of complaints when they arise. Policies around the responsible consumption of alcohol have been implemented by some firms
  • Reviewing other policies to ensure consistency and support for cultural objectives
  • Training – creating a forum to discuss what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and promote respect for others’ views. At a senior level, training around the response to unacceptable conduct and complaints and how to deal with all stakeholders is essential
  • Implementing deterrents in the form of profit share adjustments for partners where there are findings of misconduct 

The recently published Government response to its 2019 consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace may see the development of a statutory code to support a new duty on employers to take all reasonable steps (a variable concept depending on the circumstances) to prevent harassment in the workplace. It would be prudent for employers to revisit the technical guidance on sexual harassment at work issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in early 2020 (featuring many of the above steps), which it is anticipated will form the basis of such a code. We expect the adoption of such steps is likely to be an increasing focus of disputes in this area going forward.

You can read the full articles here: City AM, Legal Week (subscription required), The Law Society Gazette.

Our full press release is available here.