The law makes it clear that sexual harassment at work is not acceptable. Whilst there is no strict definition as to what sexual harassment is, the Sex Discrimination Act gives you the legal right not to be sexually harassed at work and it is also unlawful to treat women (or men) less favourably because of their sex.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature. It’s not about fun or friendship but about an abuse of power.
It is also worth bearing in mind that many people respond to situations in different ways. What may seem like an innocent action or remark to one person may be deemed offensive by another. The law sides with the ‘victim’ not the ‘perpetrator’.
Since there is no single definition, the test is how the victim feels about the behaviour. Whilst men can also be subject to sexual harassment, the majority of cases have been by women against men. It’s estimated that 50% of women in employment are, or have been, subject to sexual harassment of some form or other.
This doesn’t just happen to women who work in large offices or those who work within a predominantly male working environment. Sexual Harassment at work can happen to people in any occupation, to any age group and from every community.
What Types of Behaviour Are Considered Sexual Harassment?
It can take many forms which can broadly be categorised in 3 groups:
- Comments about appearance, body or clothes.
- Indecent remarks.
- Questions or comments about your sex life.
- Requests for sexual favours.
- Sexual demands made by someone of the opposite sex, or even your own sex.
- Promises or threats concerning a person’s employment conditions in return for sexual favours.
- Looking or staring at a person’s body.
- Display of sexually explicit material such as calendars, pin ups or magazines.
- Physically touching, pinching, hugging, caressing, kissing.
- Sexual assault.
What Can I do About Sexual Harassment at Work?
In the first instance, you should try to confront the harasser. It may be that their perception of harassment is not the same as yours and they didn’t realise you found their behaviour offensive.
When you confront them you should:
- Speak clearly and slowly, maintaining direct eye contact.
- Describe the behaviour, its effects on you and that you want it to stop.
- Ignore any attempts to trivialise or dismiss what you have to say.
- Don’t smile or apologise. This will undermine your complaint.
- When you have finished what you want to say, walk away. The less you say, the more powerful you will be.
However, you do need to speak up straight away. It may be that you choose a friend, a colleague or union representative to give you moral support. They could also act as a witness to any incidents of improper behaviour.
If you feel you can’t confront the harasser face to face, you might prefer to write to them. You can explain that their behaviour is making you feel uncomfortable and that you want it to stop. Keep a copy of the letter and let them know that if their behaviour persists, you will take the matter further.
Keep a Diary
Note down all the behaviour that offends you, the dates, times and location where the behaviour took place and if there were any other people present, keep a record of their names. This will help you if you need to make an official complaint.
What if the Sexual Harassment Continues?
Once you’ve confronted the person harassing you, if the behaviour continues you need to tell your employer. Many employers have a procedure – follow it.
Your employer should investigate your complaint and deal with it. They have a duty of care to protect you against this type of behaviour. If they fail to take any action to protect you, they leave themselves open to legal action.
You have the right to take someone with you to any meetings about your complaint. They can back you up if necessary. Once again, keep a written record of everything that happens.
When and Why Should I Take my Case to a Tribunal?
Employment Tribunals are external committees who look at whether employers have acted unlawfully. They will seek to resolve the problem.
You should go to a tribunal if:
- The harassment continues after you’ve told the perpetrator to stop and you’ve reported it to your employer.
- The harasser owns the company and there’s no-one else to complain to.
- If you are not happy with the way the investigation was handled and/or you are not satisfied with the outcome.
You Must File Your Complaint Within 3 Months
The Employment Tribunals Commission and your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau can offer you excellent guidance and advice about this type of complaint.
Sexual harassment at work threatens your confidence and self-esteem. It can stop you working effectively, undermines your dignity and it can affect your health and happiness.
Nobody should be subjected to it. Fortunately, a variety of laws exist to protect you.