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A guide to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace

View profile for Maria Chadwick
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A guide to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace

High profile scandals in Hollywood and Westminster have led to a flurry of disturbing tales of abuses of power, sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the working environment.

Many women – and men – have chosen to speak out about their experiences and some serious cases have even led to legal proceedings being brought against high profile individuals.

However, some have expressed concern about taking action over fears that it may harm their careers.

But, according to leading employment lawyer, there are several steps which can be taken to ensure that any offending behaviour stops without damaging prospects at work.

“Encountering unprofessional, inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment in the workplace can be particularly damaging”, said Maria Chadwick, a specialist discrimination solicitor at Stephensons.

“While the behaviour itself can be incredibly humiliating and embarrassing, there can be added stress – particularly where the perpetrator is more senior.

“Any desire to speak out can be outweighed by the fear of either not being believed or suffering reprisals. This can include being excluded from certain opportunities or even losing a job altogether.

“Often, this fear breeds silence and feelings of anger and shame, which only compound the problem.”

What does the law say?

The law regarding sexual harassment is governed by ‘Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010’, which sets out legislation relating to harassment in general. Under the act, a person (A) harasses another (B) if:

(a) A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and

(b) The conduct has the purpose or effect of—

(i) Violating B's dignity, or

(ii) Creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B

Maria explains: “In order for harassment to be classed as sexual harassment, the conduct must relate to – or be a result of – the victim’s sex.

“If this sounds a little vague, it is because it is. The provision for sexual harassment is wide ranging and encompasses all sorts of incidents and behaviour, whether it is indecent or suggestive remarks or inappropriate physical contact.

“What’s more, sexual harassment can also apply to actions carried out by email, telephone or other digital communications. It doesn’t simply have to be in person.”

When does ‘banter’ become sexual harassment?

Some who believe they have been a victim of inappropriate behaviour at work wrestle with doubts over whether the behaviour they encountered crossed the line which separates ill-judged actions and so-called ‘office banter’ from sexual harassment. This, says Maria, can lead to further feelings of insecurity which prevent victims from coming forward.

“Those accused of sexual harassment in the workplace will often try to justify their actions as being nothing more than ‘office banter’”, she explains.

“However, this is no justification for actions which are considered as degrading or humiliating by the person who has experienced them.

“Work would be a very boring place without indulging in some good humour and while not all ‘banter’ can be rightly called sexual harassment, the onus falls entirely on that person to consider the impact that their remarks may have on another person and where their actions constitute sexual harassment.”

How widespread is the problem?

“Sadly, far too widespread”, says Maria.

“A survey conducted in 2016 by The Tuc and Everyday Sexism reported that 52 per cent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. Nearly a quarter had been touched without invitation and a fifth had experienced a sexual advance.

“As we have seen with the recent torrent of disturbing accounts through social media, the problem of sexual harassment is not simply contained to the higher echelons of the film and television industry. It is a problem that is encountered every day in all walks of life.”

What can be done about it?

Maria stresses that those who have encountered or who continue to encounter sexual harassment on a regular basis should know that it is simply not acceptable and that the law is there to stop such conduct and to prevent it from happening in the future.

“However”, she continues, “this does require some gathering of evidence.”

“The employee should keep a detailed account of when, where and how the instances of sexual harassment took place. This includes keeping notes of who was involved, who else might have been there or seen it happening; anything that would be considered relevant to establishing their case.

“The employee should also make sure to clearly rebuke any inappropriate behaviour. As hard as it may seem, saying ‘no’ and telling the person that their behaviour is not appropriate - and will not be tolerated - can make a huge difference, particularly if it is in front of other people.

“Even if the behaviour continues, taking a strong stance on the matter shows that there was no room for misinterpretation or that the individual was unaware their actions were inappropriate.

“The next step would be for the employee to speak to their superior – whether it is a manager, or the company’s HR department.

Maria explains that, often, the first step will be to follow the company’s formal grievance procedure. This will involve putting a complaint in writing whereby the employer is obliged to investigate and provide a formal response detailing what actions it will take.

“Unfortunately, some employers are better at dealing with such matters than others.

“If the employee doesn’t think that their employer is taking the matter seriously enough, or treating the issue with the sensitivity it merits, then they may wish to take legal action.”

Can I take my employer to court?

If the employee feels that they may have been subjected to sexual harassment it is important to remember that there are strict time limits to bring such a claim in the court or the tribunal.

“To bring a claim in the employment tribunal regarding harassment in the workplace, the claim must be made within three months, less one day, of the discriminatory act”, explains Maria.

“Time is very much of the essence and it is important for the employee to seek legal advice as quickly as possible in order to give themselves the best possible chance of reaching a satisfactory conclusion to the matter, through the courts.”

First published on HR Review on November 15th 2017

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