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What is Sexual Harassment? What to do if You Suffer Sexual Harassment at Work

By Practice Group Leader, Employment and Partnership

Sexual harassment at work is experienced by more than half of women, new research has revealed.

One fifth of women have suffered unwanted sexual advances in the workplace and nearly a quarter of women were physically touched.

Other shocking statistics found in the recent Trade Union Congress (TUC) report include 35 per cent of those questioned have heard comments of a sexual nature being made about other women in the workplace and 32 per cent have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature.

Speaking about the report called ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter?’, which is part of the Everyday Sexism Project, the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady said: “How many times do we still hear that sexual harassment in the workplace is just a bit of ‘banter’?

“Let’s be clear – sexual harassment is undermining, humiliating and can have a huge effect on mental health. It has no place in a modern workplace, or in wider society.”

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 

Less favourable treatment because a person submits to or rejects such unwanted conduct or advances is also unlawful sexual harassment. 

What Sort of Conduct Can Amount to Sexual Harassment?

The conduct can be any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

This can include unwelcome sexual advances, touching, forms of sexual assault, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings or sending emails with material of a sexual nature.

What Should I do if I Experience Sexual Harassment at Work?

In some cases where there has been physical touching or intimidation you may have the right to make civil claims or press criminal charges, in addition to employment-related claims.  You may want to report the matter to the Police. 

You may have to ask your employer to remove the person responsible from the workplace whilst the incident is being investigated so as to ensure you will not have to come into contact with the individual.

For most sexual harassment cases you can take this five-step approach to resolving the issue.

  1. Try to Resolve The Matter Informally – You could speak directly to the person responsible for the conduct and let them know that the treatment is unwanted and inappropriate, if you feel comfortable and able to do so.

    If this informal approach does not work, or if you feel unable to speak with the colleague because they will not be receptive or you fear the treatment will get worse, then you should speak with your line manager.

    In one in five cases of sexual harassment, the perpetrator is a direct manager or someone with direct authority over the victim. If your line manager is responsible for the unwanted behaviour then you can speak with a member of HR or another manager instead.

  2. Build a Support Network – Sexual harassment and bullying at work can have a huge impact on your mental health so having a support network to rely upon is hugely important whether you decide to resolve the matter informally or formally through a grievance procedure.

    Family and friends can provide help by listening and professionals you can seek advice from include a trade union representative, Citizens Advice and an employment law solicitor.

  3. Keep a Diary – If you keep a paper trail detailing when and where the harassment takes place, in addition to what was said or done and who witnessed it, then this can be used to demonstrate a pattern of behaviour if you later need to raise a formal grievance or take the case to an employment tribunal.

  4. Raise a Grievance – If informal action fails to get the desired outcome then you can take formal action by raising a grievance.

    To find out how to raise a grievance you should look at your employer’s grievance policy or bullying and harassment policy. It should detail what information you need to include in your letter complaining about sexual harassment at work.

  5. Make a Sexual Harassment Claim

    If the above steps fail to resolve the issue you could consider making a claim for sexual harassment at work.

    You can bring a claim for sexual harassment to the Employment Tribunal under the Equality Act within three months of the act which you are complaining about and if your claim is successful you could receive compensation for injury to feelings, among other things.

Four out of five women do not report sexual harassment to their employer, with only 27 per cent of those surveyed by the TUC feeling able to report the unwanted behaviour to someone senior. Some women expressed the fear that they would be seen as unable to take a joke if they were to either challenge or report sexual harassment.

Your employer has a duty of care to protect you from sexual harassment so if you experience sexual harassment at work you should feel able to challenge the behaviour and report it to your employer. If your employer fails to resolve your sexual harassment at work case speak to Slater and Gordon’s employment law solicitors by calling freephone 0800 916 9060 or contact us online and we will call you. Our contact centre is open 24 hours a day seven days a week.

Claire Dawson is an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon in London.

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