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Sexual harassment in the workplace Employment law advice

By Principal Lawyer & Team Leader, Employment

As an employment lawyer I regularly assist clients who have been the victims of sexual harassment. Often individuals are not certain about whether the inappropriate behaviour they are experiencing in the workplace is unlawful. They often find themselves caught between a desire to take action to get the behaviour to stop and a fear about what will happen if they do. That got us thinking – do we really only see the tip of the iceberg?

Well, the answer is yes. The research we commissioned shows that 6 out of 10 working women reported they had experienced a male colleague behaving inappropriately towards them. The reported behaviours included inappropriate touching, a colleague attempting to kiss them, comments about their figure, their appearance and their sex life. Importantly the research also showed it is not just women that are victims. Almost 40% of men polled reported they too had experienced such inappropriate behaviour.

These high levels of sexual harassment are shocking but perhaps even more so is that 60% said they kept the incident to themselves. When asked why they did not report the incident 1 in 5 said they were worried it would affect their job and 1 in 10 were scared that no one would believe them.

Nearly half of the women polled felt such sexist behaviour would always exist within the workplace culture. Something needs to be done to change that expectation and that culture. Everyone has the right to go to work without having to fend off unwanted advances or inappropriate behaviour. Employment law protects victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, including those who are victimised because they have refused or submitted to a colleague’s advances or because they have complained.

Hopefully our research will help affected workers understand that they are not alone in what they are experiencing, that they do not need to suffer in silence, and that there is action that they can take.

If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, actions you can consider include:

  • Don’t suffer in silence – get some advice and support whether from a trade union representative; organisations like the CAB or from an employment lawyer;
  • Sometimes making it clear to the perpetrator that the behaviour is unwanted and unwelcome can make it stop;
  • Sometimes it is not possible to do that or it is ineffective and you could then speak to a HR manager or a line manager;
  • Keep a diary of your experiences including date, time, place, details of the incident including words spoken/gestures/touches;
  • Raise a grievance. Every workplace should have a grievance procedure and many will have a specific policy about bullying and harassment;
  • Legal action. If you are considering this it is wise to take some legal advice promptly as tight time limits apply for employment tribunal claims of 3 months less 1 day from the incident you are complaining about.