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Sexual Harassment at Work is Still Rife - Here is What You Can Do About It

By Associate, Employment

Here’s a stereotypical scenario: An attractive junior female employee working for a senior manager. The manager becomes "overly friendly" with her by the photocopier and over steps the mark by touching or groping her inappropriately or making inappropriate comments to her/about her. 

It happens once, twice and then becomes a frequent occurrence. The manager then threatens the employee with dismissal if the employee reports the matter. The employee is left in a difficult situation. She wants to keep her job but does not want to continue being on the receiving end of the manager's unwanted advances. 

It sounds like a scene from a very bad 1970's movie. So inappropriate, so politically incorrect. This can't still be happening can it? The truth is that sadly these scenarios do play out in real life and are still occurring frequently, here and now in the 21st century! 
Last year Slater and Gordon Lawyers conducted a survey into sexual harassment at work. 1,036 women took part in the survey and the results showed just how rife sexual harassment at work still is.

According to the poll, almost two thirds of women had had a male colleague behave inappropriately towards them at work, and 21% of those who had experienced inappropriate behaviour from colleagues classed it as persistent. However, only 27% said that they had reported sexual harassment incidents. 
Why were so few incidents reported? It could be for many reasons including; fear of victimisation, the shame / embarrassment of colleagues knowing what had happened or simply because they did not want to "rock the boat".

Whatever their reasons were, it’s clear that employees may be more likely to report more sexual harassment incidents if they could be sure that they would be taken seriously by their employers. 

Employers in the UK have a duty of care to protect staff from workplace discrimination, bullying and harassment, either from colleagues or third parties.

An employer can be deemed to have breached its duty of care by failing to take reasonable steps to keep the employee safe from harm. Unfortunately, many employers do not take this duty seriously and often reports of sexual harassment at work are either ignored or dismissed as false allegations. 
We need only look at the recent case of the two sales women who won their Employment Tribunal claims for sexual harassment and victimisation against their employer earlier this year.

One of the women complained that their manager ogled and groped her. The other claimed that he fondled her. Both women claim they were dismissed after reporting incidents of sexual harassment.  

The Tribunal was apparently shown online, images of one of the Claimants to support allegations that, in addition to her role as a saleswoman, she was a part-time sex worker. Was the employer trying to insinuate that it was acceptable for her to be sexually harassed for this reason? 
It is reported that at a recent remedy hearing, the Tribunal ruled that the women should receive compensation awards of £15,000 and £11,200. Some may say the awards were not nearly enough to compensate the women for the harassment and victimisation they complained of.

What price can you put on the humiliation, embarrassment and shame caused to these women? They were courageous enough to take on their employer and were successful in their claims for sexual harassment and victimisation but lost their claims for sex and race discrimination. Whilst the Tribunal ruled in their favour, with compensation at that level is it really sending out the message that sexual harassment and victimisation should never be tolerated in the workplace?
So, is sexual harassment at work still rife? Well, our survey indicates that it is. It would seem that more needs to be done to shift outdated perceptions of women in the workplace and to encourage other women to speak out following incidents of sexual harassment. 
The bottom line is: No it's not ok... and it should not be tolerated.  Employers need to find sensitive and robust ways of dealing with such behaviour.

What to Do if You Have or Are Being Sexually Harassed in the Workplace

1. Consider whether you feel able to raise the problem informally with the person responsible. 
2. Explain clearly to them that their behaviour is unwelcome or makes you uncomfortable and that you want it to stop. Sometimes this is easier said than done.
3. Raise the issue with your line manager or HR; if it is too difficult or embarrassing to speak directly to the person responsible. HR can provide confidential advice/assistance in resolving the issue formally or informally.
4. If informal steps are not appropriate, or have been unsuccessful, you should raise the matter formally under your employer's Grievance Procedure.  Your employer may also have a bullying and harassment policy which applies.  
5. It is always a good idea to get expert legal advice and/or assistance in dealing with the matter.

If you have experienced sexual harassment at work and would like expert legal advice on how best to handle the situation, call Slater and Gordon Lawyers 24/7 on freephone 0800 916 9060 or contact us and we'll be happy to help you.

Marsha Thompson is an Employment Law Solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in central London.

Watch our tips for victims of sexual harassment at work video on the Slater and Gordon YouTube channel.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers are a nationwide law firm with 1,450 staff in 18 offices across London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Milton Keynes, Merseyside, Bristol, Newcastle, Halifax, Wakefield, Derby, Cambridge & meeting rooms in Bramhall, Cheshire.

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