Recent revelations in both America and the United Kingdom have shone a spotlight on the issue of sexual harassment and highlighted how common it is in the workplace. This is reflected in a recent survey carried out by the TUC: 52% of the women surveyed said that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, nearly a quarter had experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work -, and a fifth had experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work.
The same TUC survey found that only about one in five affected women report sexual harassment and for those that do, their outcomes are poor: 80% said that nothing changed following their report and 16% said that the situation worsened. Doubtless employment tribunal fees (now abolished) which made discrimination claims prohibitively expensive have not helped women take action when experiencing sexual harassment. However, the recent revelations also indicate that in many workplaces there is a knowledge and tolerance of sexual harassment that has made it difficult for women to report such behaviour. The media focus on this issue may now begin to change that cultural climate: there are clear signs that steps will be taken by all the major political parties to address the issue for those working in politics and one can expect that there will be pressure for similar reforms in other workplaces.
What the law says
Media attention on the issue of sexual harassment has also revealed widespread ignorance as to what might constitute sexual harassment and/or harassment related to sex.
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits an employer from subjecting an employee to sexual harassment, harassment related to sex or less favourable treatment because they reject or submit to harassment.
Harassment under the Equality Act is defined as:
It is important to note that unwanted conduct can constitute harassment where it has the proscribed effect, even when the perpetrator did not intend that effect.
Whether or not the unwanted conduct has the proscribed effect depends upon the perception of the employee, the circumstances of the case and whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.
Unwanted conduct includes a wide range of behaviour including spoken or written words or abuse, physical gestures, facial expressions and other physical behaviour. Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature would include unwelcome sexual advances (although there is no need for the victim to have made it apparent that the conduct is unwanted), touching of the victim’s body, sexual assault, sexual jokes, pornographic pictures and emails of a sexual nature. A single act, whether of a sexual nature or related to sex, can amount to harassment if sufficiently serious.
Action by employers
Employers should ensure that they encourage a culture in which harassment of this nature is clearly understood to be unacceptable. Employers should also seek to ensure that victims of such harassment feel able to come forward knowing that they will be supported and effective action taken. Robust policies which are adhered to can help to engender such an environment. Training is also vitally important. Employers may well find a surprising lack of knowledge amongst their staff as to the types of behaviour that can constitute harassment and training can help to prevent such behaviour occurring. Training can also ensure that any complaints of harassment are appropriately and effectively dealt with.
Our expert team at Old Square Chambers are highly experienced in providing advice and support to complement the needs of any HR Department. They regularly advise on policies, carry out investigations, act as advisors to decision making panels, or determine grievances and make recommendations. They also provide practical behind the scenes advice on the best course of action when dealing with complaints. The team are also able to provide tailored training which best suits your needs.
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