Our article on sexual harrassment gives a good overview of employment law and your rights. Sometimes you may feel uncomfortable about someone’s behaviour at work and be unsure of how to react. We get many, broad ranging questions on this topic, so we’ve taken a few and our legal expert has answered them individually. We hope these help you if you are in a similar situation. If you’d like to take a look at our original article as well, you will find it here.
(1) A guy in our office gives bear hugs and touches our arms
An older guy in our office often bear hugs us and/or touches our shoulders/arms when he’s telling us something or when greeting us in the morning. I’m actually not sure whether he’s just from that generation and he’s doing it in a fatherly way as he seems like a really nice person and is happily married with kids etc. However, I’m not the kind of person who thinks it’s necessary to be ‘touchy – feely’ in the work place. Some of the other women aren’t bothered by it, but a couple of us don’t especially like it. I really don’t think he deserves sacking over this but I would rather it stopped. What should I do?
Sexual harassment can be anything from making sexual comments to unwanted physical contact. It would be up to the accuser to show that the contact was of a sexual nature. Ordinarily a bear hug or touching your arm wouldn’t be seen as sexual behaviour. Does your colleague only hug women? If he hugs all his co-workers (of either gender) then this appears more likely his “touchy – feely” nature rather than actions with a sexual undertone.
Your starting point should be to speak to your colleague and explain that their behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable. It may be that he doesn’t realise the impact of his actions. This may be easier with another trusted colleague present. Alternatively perhaps another colleague could explain to the perpetrator how their actions make you feel and ask them to stop.
If any sexual harassment does not desist after you have spoken to the perpetrator, the next step is to inform your manager. Managers by law must keep their staff safe from sexual harassment at work and so have a duty to listen to and respond to your complaint to stop the situation. Your can be verbal or written. It is however always better to follow up any conversation in writing. Any disciplinary action does not necessarily have to involve an employee losing their job; it might be appropriate to simply move them to another department or rota them on different shifts to you.
If you are unhappy with your manager’s attempts to resolve the matter, you can invoke your company’s formal grievance procedure (which all companies must have by law). As a last resort, sexual harassment claims can be referred to an Employment Tribunal. You only have 3 months minus 1 day from when the last harassment occurred to refer the matter to the Tribunal though so it may be that you have to make a decision about a Tribunal case before your company’s grievance procedure has completed. Try speaking to Citizens Advice Bureau or your trade union for free guidance on this process.
(2) I’m the subject of sexual innuendo…but he’s friends with ‘management’
I work for a big public sector organisation and me and some other women have suffered from serious innuendo and sexual remarks from one particular bloke. It went on for years until I made a complaint – at first I was made to feel as if I was making it up until a couple of people agreed to be witnesses. They dragged it on and on for over 6 months during which time the management made my life hell. Finally the man was disciplined and has moved departments but I am still treated coldly by the other managers. Can I claim compensation over the way it was handled? You’d expect public bodies to handle things according to the law but clearly HR are just frightened to get involved.
I am sorry to hear that your employer did not initially believe you. This is why having evidence of the sexual harassment is so important. The type of harassment will affect what evidence is available. Physical evidence such as texts, emails or social media messages from the perpetrator are strong evidence to support any complaint. Any CCTV or photographs can also be helpful to support a complaint. Witness statements, as you had here, are really helpful too. Unfortunately without evidence to back up your complaint, employers are often faced with one person’s word against another’s. This is of course not an excuse for not believing you but perhaps explains why the complaint was upheld once you had evidence to support the accusation.
It is frustrating that the complaint process took so long to resolve. This is why it is often necessary to make a decision about referring a matter to an Employment Tribunal before the disciplinary process has completed.
You are unfortunately unable to claim compensation because the process took so long to complete. I am however concerned that managers are treating you differently following the complaint. Victimisation of an employee who has made a complaint is unacceptable. Unfortunately proving any victimisation is often difficult. If your managers’ behaviour gets to a point where you no longer feel able to work at the company, you might be able to claim for constructive dismissal, but you would need to be able to evidence the change in behaviour and that the way that you were treated after the complaint was inappropriate (i.e. not that they just socialised with you less during breaks, but that perhaps they no longer consulted you about strategy on business projects). Speak to your local Citizens Advice Bureau if you are unhappy and think that constructive dismissal may be a route that you wish to consider.
(3) I’m being harassed by a neighbouring business owner, what should I do?
I do not work directly for an employer but I have a stall in the local market. Another stall holder is constantly making sexual remarks – some quite blatant. At first I ignored them but it’s now starting to make me feel pretty depressed and I dread the days I go to work there, but the trade is good in that area so I don’t want to give it up. Should I tell the market owners? What can they do? Is there something else I can do?
Have you tried to speak to the stall holder about their comments? It is important that you explain to them that you find their behaviour inappropriate and that you would like them to stop. This can often be awkward and you might find it easier to ask another stall holder that you trust to speak to the perpetrator on your behalf.
Sexual harassment rules do cover those who are self-employed in certain situations. It is likely that the market owners will have a formal complaints process that you can follow to report a complaint. Show them any evidence that you have (for example witness statements from other neighbouring stall owners). Is the perpetrator at the next stall to you? It may be that they can move you to a stall that is not right next to him and so will reduce the opportunity for the stall owner to make inappropriate comments to you.
(4) I couldn’t handle the complaint process can I claim constructive dismissal?
I have just left my job – a job that loved, because of my manager. He clearly had feelings for me and I would often catch him just staring at me. Then he started touching me, first on the arm, then on my thigh as I walked past etc. I had to go to external meetings with him and he would touch my breast ‘accidentally’ when pretending to help me with my seat belt and other stuff. He was always making suggestions like we could book into a hotel ‘have some fun’. I never encouraged him but also felt I could not say anything because he was really good friends with the rest of the management team. Eventually I talked to a female manager who asked was I absolutely sure and said that I was making serious accusations that could ruin someone else’s life. I knew I couldn’t go through the ordeal of meetings and questionings when he was so well in with them, so I left my job. I’ve lost a lot of confidence and am really worried this will happen in my next job. Can I claim for constructive dismissal? Would there be anyone to help me to do this as I couldn’t do it on my own. I cannot afford a solicitor.
If another manager was offering to consider your complaint and you did not give them the opportunity to do so, the Employment Tribunal is unlikely to consider that your treatment amounted to constructive dismissal by the actions of the firm (as opposed to the actions of one employee, however senior). Are you able to perhaps prove that the grievance process would not have been followed properly due to the seniority of the perpetrator?
If you refer the matter to The Employment Tribunal, you have 3 months less one day from the date that you left the firm to do so. If you decide to pursue this route, speak to your local Citizens Advice Bureau for free advice.
Severe forms of sexual harassment may also be criminal offences. Touching your breasts is a form of sexual assault. If you can prove this (for example with CCTV footage or if there were witnesses), then you could also report this to the police.
You may also like to read our our case study of one person’s experience of sexual harassment here.