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As Valentine’s Day 2020 dawns, we take a look at some of the issues that may arise when staff send each other cards or gifts.

Whilst Valentine’s Day can be seen as an opportunity to celebrate romance or relationships, organisations should bear in mind that staff members sending gifts to each other could be seen as sexual harassment, especially in light of the increasing awareness within this area. Whilst some cards or items may seem harmless, such as a bouquet of flowers or box of chocolates, what could have started out as a good-natured gesture may not be perceived in this way. The danger is that this may give rise to claims of sexual harassment, even when this was not the intention of the sender.

Sexual harassment takes place where there is unwanted conduct relating to sex, or of a sexual nature, which causes the recipient to feel that their dignity has been violated or it has created an intimidating, humiliating, hostile or degrading environment. In these situations, it is the perception of the person claiming sexual harassment that will be considered. Therefore, although the employee sending the card may view its message as nice, funny or romantic, the words in the card could be viewed as ‘unwanted conduct’. Likewise, employees receiving an unwanted gift may feel it is being used as a way to harass them, especially if this happens publicly.

To ensure sexual harassment is not occurring in the workplace, on Valentine’s Day or at any other time, organisations should take steps to increase awareness and deter staff. One of the most effective deterrents will be having a clear, well-drafted anti-harassment policy which outlines the rules on acceptable, and unacceptable, conduct within the workplace. The policy can also state how to make complaints once harassment has occurred and it should also give an indication of the consequences of sexually harassing colleagues. Training should be provided to all members of staff and it will be useful to include real-life examples of what can be seen as sexual harassment.

On the day itself, a gentle reminder to employees about what is acceptable in the workplace can be an effective way of reducing the risk of sexual harassment taking place. Employees can also be told to exchange Valentine’s Day cards and gifts outside the workplace during personal time rather than at work.

The issue of workplace harassment continues to receive much scrutiny, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission recently releasing guidance for organisations on the best methods of tackling and preventing it taking place. To this end, whilst Valentine’s Day can be a light-hearted, fun occasion, organisations should always be mindful of potential issues that could arise.

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