Complaints of sexual harassment

Lord Rennard: Lucky to be a member not an employee

Lord Rennard, at the centre of allegations of sexual harassment, is not an employee of the Liberal Democrat Party, he is a member of a political party. If he was an employee, the outcome of the recent investigation might have been quite different.

An independent investigator found that there was insufficient evidence to proceed against Lord Rennard and that, although the evidence against him was ‘broadly credible’,

it is unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way. Without proof of such an intention, I do not consider that such a charge would be tenable

‘Beyond reasonable doubt’ is a term used in the criminal courts to decide on guilt. In the workplace, faced with similar allegations of sexual harassment, an employer simply has to have an ‘honest belief’ in the guilt of the employee and that belief must be based on ‘reasonable grounds’. The standard of proof is not that of a criminal prosecution and on that basis, Lord Rennard would have been less likely to escape disciplinary action had he been employed.

It is also interesting that the investigation needed evidence that Lord Rennard ‘intended’ to act in an inappropriate way. Again, in the workplace, intention is irrelevant when it comes to sexual harassment – or any other sort of discriminatory harassment. If the harassment has the ‘purpose or effect’ of violating dignity or creating an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, it can be harassment. If the women on the receiving end of Lord Rennard’s behaviour perceived it to be harassment and if a reasonable person would agree, then, had he been an employee, it is more likely he would have faced consequences.

So, at work, if there is a similar ‘broadly credible’ complaint, an employer can take action without proving beyond reasonable doubt that the complaint is true. Given the seeming deluge of cases currently in the courts and the results of enquiries expected to show that sexual harassment was allowed to take place over long periods of time, it is important that employers use their greater flexibility and powers to address any complaints promptly and that workers feel confident about making those complaints.

For more information contact Sallie Davies at our Ipswich office on 01473 230033 or e-mail sjd@blockslegal.co.uk.