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Sexual Harassment: What Help Should You Expect From Your Employer?

If the dramatic downfall of Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein has taught us anything, it’s that sexual harassment is still alive and well and more prevalent than any of us thought.

While my colleagues and I routinely see people who have experienced harassment of this kind in the workplace, few could have predicted how many heartrending stories have flooded Twitter over the last few days . It seems that strength in numbers is proving to be true here, with millions encouraged to share their experiences using the hashtag #MeToo.

Some industries might appear to be doing more than others to combat sexual harassment, but it’s clear that it’s happening everywhere and all employers need to start treating it seriously.

Employers have a duty of care to keep their employees safe from harm and that includes sexual harassment; in law this is defined as any ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the recipient’s dignity or otherwise creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.’

The law is there to protect employees, but it’s how it’s enforced by employers that really matters. Here’s the good practice guide your bosses should be following to keep you safe at work.

  1. Check your company policy

 Employers should have clear anti-harassment and discrimination policies which clearly set out the process by which employees should raise any concerns or complaints. If your employer doesn’t have one or if you find that policies are being ignored or brushed aside you should speak to HR for advice.

Your workplace may also have a diversity ‘champion’ – a measure recommended by ACAS – to act as a trusted point of contact for anyone who is being harassed. 

If harassment is found to have occurred, it could have a serious effect on someone’s health and wellbeing. Check whether your employer offers access to a counselling service.

  1. Educate, educate, educate

There is often a culture of silence around sexual harassment. Victims may feel ashamed, embarrassed or fear they won’t be believed. Many also choose not to speak up because of potential reprisals at work, including being managed out of their job, or concerns that it may damage their career.  

‘It’s only office banter’ is a phrase we hear a lot and it’s important that staff are trained to know the difference between what’s acceptable ‘banter’ and what’s not. It’s important to create a culture where people feel comfortable speaking up, and if your employer hasn’t offered training to date, in the wake of the Weinstein scandal may be the perfect time to suggest that they do. 

‘Banter’ and ‘jokes’ can go horribly wrong when boundaries are crossed. Your employer should be proactive and keep an eye on what kind of conversations are taking place to ensure they protect staff who might be subject to bullying and harassment, without the need for someone to raise a complaint or grievance first.

  1. Zero tolerance

All employers should adopt a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and have the correct policies and procedures in place to ensure any incidents are promptly investigated and the perpetrator disciplined if necessary.

Currently there is no legal obligation on employers to have anti-harassment or discrimination policies, but this would certainly be a good starting point. So would an increase of the time limit in which people can bring a claim – currently three months less one day of the last act of sexual harassment taking place.

We would welcome the reintroduction of statutory equality questionnaires where employees can ask questions about any incidents of harassment and discrimination within their company, with an obligation on employers to respond. Although it is still good practice for employers to respond to such questions, there is no statutory time frame or automatic inference of discrimination if they fail to respond, as used to be the case.

The advice for anyone experiencing sexual harassment is to speak up – if not it may continue and could also happen to someone else. Not everyone will feel able to face it head on and tell the perpetrator ‘I don’t like it, I’d like you to stop’, and even those who do may find this doesn’t do the trick, especially not where there is repeated behaviour of a serious nature. A senior manager or HR would be the next step, but again not everyone will find them supportive, particularly if your manager is the cause of the problem. While some companies don’t have an HR department, I have heard countless stories of HR essentially telling people to get over it, to dismiss it as banter or even think about moving on, which definitely isn’t acceptable.

If you’re not getting the support you should from your employer, speak to your trade union if you have one, contact the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or contact a lawyer.

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