CMS Expert Guide on sexual harassment in the workplace

From a Swiss perspective, the term sexual harassment in the workplace covers any behaviour with a sexual aspect or based on gender that is unwanted by and humiliating to the recipient.

Employers are under an obligation to ensure that employees are not sexually harassed, and that any victim of sexual harassment suffers no further adverse consequences: (art. 328 para. 1 of the Code of Obligations).

Swiss law also provides for an express prohibition of discrimination through sexual harassment in the workplace, which includes in particular threats, the promise of advantages, the use of coercion and the exertion of pressure in order to obtain favours of a sexual nature (art. 3 of the Gender Equality Act 1995).

In addition, administrative law imposes the obligation on employers to take the measures necessary to protect the employee's personal integrity, which includes measures against sexual harassment under the Equality Acts.

Sexual harassment may result in a prosecution. Depending on the severity, a fine, a monetary penalty or a custodial sentence may be imposed.

It is also worth mentioning that various collective bargaining agreements set out provisions prohibiting sexual harassment.

There is legal regulation in Croatia, which defines and prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. The matter is regulated by three main acts.

  • The Anti-Discrimination Act from 2008 (amended in 2012) defines sexual harassment as “every unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, which has as its intention or represents a violation of a persons’ dignity, especially if it creates an intimidating, hostile, derogatory, demeaning or offensive environment”.
  • The Gender Equality Act from 2008 (amended multiple times, last time in 2017) also contains the definition quoted above and further prohibits any type of gender-related discrimination in the workplace.
  • The Labour Act from 2014 (amended in 2017) prescribes the implementation of protective measures and relevant procedures against discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Besides the legislation mentioned above, it is common for  collective bargaining agreements to tackle the matter; however, it is usually just a general prohibition of (sexual) harassment and reference to the legislation referred to above, i.e. it is rarely seen that collective bargaining agreements contain any additional protection or measures that are prescribed by the law.

2. Are employers in this jurisdiction required to take pro-active action to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

Yes. Employers are not only obliged to intervene where sexual harassment occurs but they also have to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace in order to fulfil their duty of care and comply with the various legislative requirements to take all adequate and reasonable measures necessary to prevent sexual harassment.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs recommends implementing, in particular, the following measures:

  1. Employers should have in place a document outlining the principles (i.e. a policy document), containing (at least) a declaration of principles, in which the employers state that they are firmly opposed to sexual harassment and will not tolerate it, a definition of sexual harassment (including examples), the offer of support for victims (including the name of a contact person), and the sanctions that perpetrators of sexual harassment will face. This document must be communicated to all employees orally and/or in writing;
  2. Employers should appoint a trustworthy, respected, impartial and credible contact person within or outside the company who can support victims in need of help or advice. Ideally, there should be two contact persons, one of each gender. It must also be taken into account that such a contact person should be properly trained; and
  3. Employers must take any other reasonable preventive measures. For instance, they should ensure that pornographic material is not shown or displayed in the workplace and that employees who make comments and jokes about sexual characteristics, sexual behaviour or sexual orientation will be spoken to and told to stop doing so.

Yes, employers are required to ensure a safe work environment, which includes the protection of the employees’ dignity during work from any acts by their managers, colleagues and persons with whom the employee comes into regular contact, which could be deemed as contrary to the applicable legislation and would constitute unwanted conduct towards the employee (including sexual harassment).

In addition, an employer with 20 or more employees is obliged to appoint a dignity officer, responsible for handling all types of complaints from employees regarding violations of their dignity.

3. Has the #MeToo movement had a noticeable impact on the number of harassment claims against your employer clients?

We have not been aware of a considerable increase in claims against employers as a result of #MeToo. The number of enquiries to specialist/advisory bodies increased in 2017, shortly after the launch of the #MeToo movement. However, the number of enquiries has now returned to a normal level. Swiss prosecuting authorities have seen very little change in the number of inquiries and criminal complaints. On the other hand, it seems that awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace is rising on the part of employers. We have seen a sharp increase in the demand for further training on the subject of sexual harassment and its prevention.

No, there has been no significant impact on the number of harassment claims against our employer clients as a result of the #MeToo movement.

Swiss law provides for a variety of legal remedies.

Employees who have been sexually harassed may suspend their work, and employers must continue to pay their salary during the suspension period.

Victims of sexual harassment may also lawfully terminate their contract of employment with immediate effect. In such cases, employees are entitled to damages equivalent to the amount they would have earned had the employment relationship ended after the ordinary notice period (usually 3 months).

Besides suspension and immediate termination of employment, victims of sexual harassment may bring an action against employers before the competent conciliation board, a court or the administrative body. To this effect, they may apply for an order prohibiting or stopping threatened sexual harassment, requiring sexual harassment to cease and confirming that sexual harassment is taking place if it is continuing to have a disruptive effect. On top of that, they may apply for compensation if the employer did not take sufficient measures to prevent sexual harassment. Such compensation may amount to up to six times the average Swiss monthly salary. In addition, victims may claim damages and satisfaction.

Employees may challenge a dismissal as a result of making a complaint of sexual harassment to their manager, or because of their initiation of legal proceedings. Remedies includes interim relief or compensation of up to six months’ salary within 180 days after termination of employment. Civil claims can also be brought against the harasser, and they may ask the court for injunctive relief as well as claim damages and satisfaction. The employee may also bring a criminal charge against the harasser.

In organisations, which employ 20 or more employees, an internal reporting system must be established, and a dignity officer duly appointed. Complaints can be made (and resolved) internally by the dignity officer.

If such an option is unavailable or if the issue was not satisfactorily resolved within a set timeframe, the employee can seek protection before the courts. In certain cases, the employee can stop further work with the employer, until adequate protection is granted, either by the employer or the courts.

In court proceedings, the burden of proof lies on the employer, i.e. the employer must prove that there was no conduct constituting sexual harassment against the employee.

The employee can make a request to the court: (i) to make a finding that the conduct amounted to sexual harassment ; (ii) to prohibit all activities which constitute harassment, i.e. to resolve the harassment case and its consequences; (iii) to award damages incurred by the violation of the employees’ rights in accordance with the applicable civil law; (iv) to publicise the court decision which made a finding of harassment.

The employee can also make a request for payment of all due but unpaid salary (together with statutory interest) if he/she has stopped working during the court proceedings. Additionally, if a finding of sexual harassment is made, the employer will generally be obliged to pay all court fees incurred as part of the court proceedings.

5. On a traffic light red/amber/green scale, how high a priority is tackling sexual harassment for clients in this jurisdiction?

Amber.

Although awareness of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has grown and the demand for specialised training for companies is increasing, tackling sexual harassment does not seem to be a top priority for employers. This may be against the background of Swiss law already having prescribed the implementation of measures against sexual harassment at an early stage, i.e., long before the #MeToo movement, and this has already become established corporate practice.

We would mark this point amber on the traffic light scale. Our clients request advice and assistance to ensure they are providing an optimal working environment for their employees, which includes implementing protective measures against sexual harassment, as well as against discrimination generally (through appointing dignity officers, by including specific provisions in employment contracts and by-laws, etc.). Therefore, we would say the matter is not marginalised, i.e. employers are aware of their obligations and are mostly willing to comply with them. However, the matter is not very “hot” (especially media-wise), as it is in some other countries, and we are of the impression that employees still have certain reservations when it comes to fully exercising their rights.

6. Any other relevant information on workplace harassment?

Employees bear the burden of proof with regard to sexual harassment in the workplace. In this regard, a recent parliamentary initiative aimed to reduce the burden of proof in the context of sexual harassment in the workplace. This initiative was rejected. However, the Swiss Parliament is currently discussing whether a new study on sexual harassment in the workplace should be carried out (since the last study dates back to 2007/2008). This must be seen against the background of the Istanbul Convention Against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence of the Council of Europe entering into force in Switzerland on 1 April 2018 and requiring members of the convention to collect statistical data on sexual harassment cases. A member of the Swiss Parliament recently requested the launch of a national prevention campaign against sexual harassment as well as the implementation of an action plan for the prevention of sexual harassment, which includes educational measures and training in companies. To date, this has not yet been discussed by the Swiss Parliament. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is currently considering a new convention on the ending of violence and harassment in the working environment. The outcome is still unclear but could also affect Switzerland as a member of ILO.

In addition to internal reporting systems (in employers with 20 or more employees), complaints can be filed with the Gender Equality Ombudsman, who is further authorised to forward the complaint to competent authorities (if applicable) or can recommend other measures to mitigate any unwanted behaviour, if deemed necessary.

7. Are you aware of any sectors which have been particularly affected by, or concerned with, harassment? For example, where reports of complaints are high, or the media have exposed an issue, or regulators are taking action?

In Switzerland, there has not been a particular focus on this issue within any specific sector.

While there are no official statistics on the occurrence of harassment cases in specific sectors / areas, the media reports largely focus on harassment cases in the public sector and less so in privately owned companies.

The Gender Equality Ombudsman highlights the education sector, the police and local and regional government bodies as especially problematic.