#MeToo - Sexual harassment in the workplace

#MeToo - Sexual harassment in the workplace

Published:

Author: Michael Briggs

Applies to: England, Wales and Scotland

Following the recent Harvey Weinstein revelations, the BBC's Radio 5 Live survey has found that a 37% of all those asked had experienced sexual harassment at work or a place of study. This is certainly a widespread issue for employers to address.

A widespread problem

The Radio 5 Live survey, of 2,031 British adults, found that 37% of all those asked had experienced sexual harassment at work or a place of study.

When the statistics are broken down further, 53% of those women surveyed, and 20% of those men surveyed, confirmed that they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace or within a place of study, often the result of inappropriate touching, comments, non-verbal acts, jokes and banter related to sex. More worryingly, the survey revealed that one in 10 women had been sexually assaulted and that more women than men were targeted by their bosses or other senior managers, all of which had resulted in one in ten women leaving their jobs due to the devastating effects of sexual harassment. The consequences are not, however, always as drastic as the loss of employment; 63% of the women victims surveyed confirmed that they didn't even report the incidents of sexual harassment and 79% of the male victims kept the unlawful acts to themselves. All of this can lead to anxiety, depression, fear and loss of confidence, with victims left feeling ashamed and frightened.

Last year, the TUC also conducted a survey of 1,500 women, of which 52% said that they had been sexually harassed at work. Most did not report it through fear of it affecting their relationships at work, their career prospects or simply fear of not being believed. A third of those surveyed had been subjected to unwelcome jokes and a quarter had experienced unwanted touching.

What the law says

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful for an employer to subject a job applicant or employee to harassment related to sex, sexual harassment, or less favourable treatment because they reject or submit to harassment. Harassment is simply not acceptable and previous misconceptions that harassment committed in a subtle way or which was 'just banter' does not amount to harassment should be immediately dispelled

Harassment related to sex and sexual harassment, in accordance with the Equality Act, occurs where both:

  • a person (A) engages in unwanted conduct related to sex (or of a sexual nature - in relation to sexual harassment); and 
  • that conduct has the purpose or effect of either violating another person's (B) dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.

Whether or not the unwanted conduct in question does have the above effect depends upon the other person's perception, all the circumstances of the case and whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect. There is also no need for the victim (person B) to have made it apparent that the conduct is unwanted. A single act, whether related to sex or of a sexual nature, can amount to unlawful harassment. There does, however, remain difficulty in defining what amounts to harassment, given its subjective nature; for example flirtation could be perfectly acceptable to one recipient but not another.

What should employers be doing?

Victims should have an ability to raise concerns if they feel that they have suffered any form of harassment at work. Since the revelations of the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, both men and women who have been the victims of sexual harassment in whatever form have shared their stories via the hashtag metoo.

In the workplace it is therefore important to ensure that:

  • employees have the ability to raise their concerns in a confidential and sensitive way, in accordance with existing company policies, whether in the form of a grievance policy, equal opportunities policy, dignity at work policy, anti-harassment policy or otherwise. This can be either informally or formally, verbally or in writing;
  • employees should also be encouraged to tell the perpetrator to stop where they feel it is safe to do so;
  • employers generally must take appropriate action, in accordance with their disciplinary policies and procedures, against the perpetrators where necessary once they have been made aware of the situation and investigated it.

Overall, employers should ensure they foster an open, inclusive and supportive environment at work, free from any form of harassment, or opportunity for harassment, and that they have robust policies in place to deal with any victims with dignity and respect.

Disclaimer

This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

About the Author

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Michael Briggs

Senior Associate

0370 086 5066

Michael is an experienced employment lawyer who provides practical, commercial and results-driven advice to a wide range of clients in respect of disciplinary matters, redundancy & reorganisation, absence and performance issues, employment contracts & handbooks and executive appointment & exits. Michael also defends employment tribunal claims.

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