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The current media furore around the extent to which various high-profile organisations knew about, and took steps to address, rumoured inappropriate conduct and/or relationships in their workplaces, highlights the need for robust HR policies and procedures. There is no doubt that failure to properly investigate alleged instances of inappropriate conduct at work can result in significant commercial and reputational damage, as well as possible employment tribunal claims.

Below, we highlight issues that employers should consider from an HR risk management perspective to protect their organisations and staff.

Questions for employers

Have you reviewed your HR policies recently (for example, your grievance, anti-bullying and harassment and disciplinary policies) to ensure they are legally compliant, clearly drafted and take a robust approach? Have you kept your staff informed about any updates?

Have you trained your senior managers and HR on how to apply your policies? Staff need regular training (together with written guidance) to ensure they understand the importance of complying with your policies and how they operate in practice. Senior managers and HR need to know how to handle investigations and grievance and disciplinary processes sensitively in line with the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures, as well as your internal company policies. Training should include guidance on how to deal with allegations that are raised confidentially. In certain cases, it can be helpful for an employer to appoint an external investigator (Make UK can perform this role for you – speak with Nicola Kibble for further details).  

Do you have a clear business stance on relationships at work and, if so, have you communicated this to your staff? Relationship at Work policies are not commonplace in the UK.  However, some organisations expressly require that employees disclose any romantic relationships or conflicts of interest that emerge with colleagues, particularly where one individual is managed by the other. Take advice before incorporating this type of wording into your policies. 

Are you taking active steps to promote an open working culture, where staff feel able to raise any concerns? For example, do you have a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and bullying? Do staff have confidence that you will take any allegations raised seriously? 

Do you know how your staff feel about your working culture? Often, when a single incident becomes public knowledge, this can prompt others to raise similar allegations, for example, about a ”toxic” working culture in the organisation or team concerned. Staff surveys can provide a useful insight into problem areas (contact us for further details). Setting up an anonymous telephone reporting line for staff to raise concerns is another way employers can find out about internal practices which are negatively affecting the working environment. Again, HR need thorough training to ensure they know how to properly investigate any staff concerns that are raised.

Imbalance of power and dishonesty

Managing issues where there is an imbalance of power between the parties, and/or possible dishonesty (or an active rumour mill), can be particularly challenging for HR. We wrote recently about steps HR can take to tackle sexual harassment at work (see here). Where criminal allegations come to light, or there is clear evidence of a breach of policy, the line between right and wrong, and the response that HR should take as a result, tend to be relatively clear. However, in the absence of these factors, the situation can be harder to navigate.

It is often not practical to forbid co-workers from dating (and it can be difficult to identify where a potentially problematic “relationship” starts). But where there is an imbalance of power (such as a senior employee having a relationship with a younger and/or more junior member of staff) issues around consent, as well as bias and conflict of interest, could come to the fore.  In addition, those in senior positions are expected to set a positive example for others and, accordingly, tend to be held to a higher standard when it comes to any alleged misconduct or inappropriate behaviour.

Issues around trust and honesty can also be key.  Where evidence emerges that somebody (and/or an organisation) has persistently lied and/or taken steps to conceal inappropriate behaviour at work, there can be a significant breakdown of trust – which can easily translate into reduced trust in a commercial brand.

How we can help

We offer an end-to-end suite of support to inform, engage and embed the right culture, values and inclusive working environment within your organisation. Ranging from our suite of micro videos (see here) and support with drafting policies and procedures to leadership visioning and strategy workshops with our leadership coaches - click here to find out more.

If you are a Make UK subscriber, you can speak to your regular adviser for guidance on managing internal investigations, including taking disciplinary action that may be needed as a result. You can also access further information, including template policies and drafting guidance, in the HR & Legal Resources section of our website. Our HR consultants are also very experienced in assisting companies with investigation processes (please email Nicola Kibble for further information).

If you are not a Make UK subscriber, our expert HR and legal advisers can also offer guidance on a consultancy basis. For further information, contact us on 0808 168 5874 or email [email protected].

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