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Practice dilemma: Sexist comments

Your practice manager has a bad line in sexist jokes. Should you intervene? Our legal expert advises

Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect at work and bullying and harassment of any kind should not be tolerated in the workplace. Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of complaints, and is defined by the Equality Act 2010 as harassment of a sexual nature related to gender.

It can range from unwelcome sexual advances to lewd jokes or making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected.

Such bullying and harassment can often be hard to recognise and it may not be obvious. It may be normal behaviour in the practice to make sexist remarks. It does however, in no way, justify it. Bear in mind that an employee can still take offence even if they overhear the sexual remarks and they are not directed at them personally. And there is no definition of what constitutes harassment or intimidating behaviour - it is for the individual to perceive what they feel is inappropriate.

Even if inappropriate behaviour has been tolerated in the past, an employee can still raise it as an issue at a later point in time.

Ensure that you have a formal policy in place which includes clear guidance of what is unacceptable and the potential repercussions. Set standards of behaviour – issue an organisational statement to all staff about the standards of behaviour expected will ensure all individuals are fully aware of their responsibilities to others. Also, set a good example yourself. The behaviour of employers and senior managers are as important as any formal policy.

Maintain fair procedures for dealing promptly with complaints from employees - ensuring these procedures have sufficient provisions of confidentiality and will be dealt with sensitively. Remember the Equality Act also makes an employer liable for third parties who are not employees of your company - such as patients or delivery drivers - so you may wish to ensure that bullying and harassment policies are displayed clearly in the workplace.

Every employee has the right to feel protected and unthreatened in the workplace and your role as an employer is to ensure the necessary tools are in place to facilitate this.

Janice Sibbald is an employment law adviser with the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland

Janice Sibbald


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