Employment solicitor Mandy Bhattal discusses sexual harassment in the workplace, what constitutes harassment and how it can be reported
Sexual harassment has again been in the news this week, following the announcement that a new legal advice helpline has been launched by the charity Rights of Women, championed by actress Emma Watson. The helpline will be run by legally qualified volunteers and will be a free to use resource for women concerned about sexual harassment issues relating to the workplace.
Following high profile examples of sexual harassment at work, women are becoming increasingly aware that sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t simply part and parcel of the working world, but it is completely unacceptable and unlawful.
However, sexual harassment at work is, understandably, a difficult topic to discuss. Invariably someone who is subjected to sexual harassment will experience a number of thought processes, such as ‘did I imagine it?’ or ‘I’m sure they didn’t mean it.’ These thoughts are often barriers to women reporting incidents of sexual harassment. Also, there is more often than not a general fear that raising a complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace will adversely affect the work environment or result in a disciplinary or dismissal.
A report from the House of Commons last year admitted that it is not possible to identify how widespread sexual harassment is in the workplace, because many incidents do not get reported.
It is important to remind employees or workers experiencing sexual harassment that the law does offer protection.
It can be difficult to acknowledge that what is being experienced is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as someone experiencing unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or related to sex which intends to or does violate their dignity, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.
Sexual harassment is unlawful and could lead to a claim under the Equality Act 2010. It can include sexual comments or jokes, unwelcome sexual advances and sending emails with sexual content – these are just some examples.
If someone is experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, it may help to confide in a trusted senior colleague or Human Resources. Where possible, it may be helpful to do this in writing so that there is a record of the issue. However, due to the personal nature of the issues this may be easier said than done. It is not necessary for the person experiencing sexual harassment to confront the harasser directly with their allegations.
If you are experiencing sexual harassment and do not feel comfortable taking this course of action, you should seek legal advice. You should do this as soon as possible, because if you do decide to bring a legal claim there are short time limits within which this must be done.
Your workplace should not be somewhere that you feel intimidated or degraded, and the law is there to protect you.