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What should you do if you are being sexually harassed at work? Juliette Franklin discusses

By Senior Associate, Employment

Your boss asks you, a junior female employee, to join him on a visit to a valued male client in the evening to secure a large order. You are told to purchase a new dress to wear – with the hint to “make it revealing”. Whilst there, you face inappropriate and sexual comments and your boss becomes a little too encouraging of your business development activities.  

Whilst this may sound like an entertaining plot line from a popular television drama or soap opera, such situations are far from fiction. It really is not uncommon for women to be put in compromising situations with colleagues. What are your rights if you face such treatment at work?  

Under the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment in employment is unlawful and will give rise to an employment tribunal claim. Sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for another person.

Conduct of a “sexual nature” is likely to include behaviour such as sexual advances, touching, standing too close and displaying offensive pictures. Everyone will have their own view of what they consider to be conduct of a “sexual nature”. An employment tribunal will therefore consider every case on its individual facts and, importantly, they will consider the victim’s perspective of the conduct.

If the unwanted conduct was intended to violate a person’s dignity, or to create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, it will automatically be considered to amount to harassment no matter what the actual effect of the treatment on the person receiving it. If there was no intention to create such an environment, a tribunal will have to consider what a “reasonable” person would have thought of it, and whether the victim’s perception was reasonable.

For example, if a woman is offended by a calendar with pictures of nude woman that one of her male colleagues has hung on the office wall this could be considered to be sexual harassment in the workplace, although it may not have been the male colleague’s intention to offend the woman in any way.

What advice then for our fictional employee? Well, if she was actively encouraged to “wine and dine” and indeed to dress ”provocatively” in order to win the client over, or if she was subjected to unwanted advances whilst at this networking event, she has arguably been subjected to sexual harassment. It is also arguable that she has been subjected to discrimination on grounds of sex – would her boss have suggested that a male employee should dress provocatively to attend a networking event? Any claim should be brought within three months of the date of the act she is complaining of.

Read more about Harassment and Bullying at Work and Sex Discrimination.

By Employment Solicitor Juliette Franklin.