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Sexual Harassment

What is Sexual Harassment?

UK sexual harassment law is covered by the Equality Act 2010, which defines harassment as:
‘Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.’

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Examples include: jokes of a sexual nature, sharing, showing, or accessing pornography at work, cat calling, sexual assault and sexual remarks including comments on appearance of body.
Sexual harassment victimisation can be defined as where a person submits to, or rejects, the above behaviour and suffers as a result. For example, a manager makes a sexual approach to an employee who rejects the attention. The employee then goes for a promotion and is rejected on the grounds of that rejection.
You do not need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted. Sexual harassment can be communicated in different ways for example by email or in texts or other digital communication.

Workplace Sexual Harassment Statistics

In July 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons published a report on sexual harassment in the workplace, which sought to highlight the issue of harassment, in an attempt to bring it out into the open as a matter to be discussed, with a view to eventually prevent it from happening at all.

That report noted (according to a ComRes poll) that up to 53% of women and 20% of men (and 37% of all employees surveyed) had experienced workplace sexual harassment, and shockingly, 10% of women who had been harassed said that they had been sexually assaulted.

It is not clear whether or to what extent the harassment was reported to the employer. However, the Report noted that part of the problem was that employers use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which effectively prevented instances of sexual harassment from being made public. This led the Women and Equalities Committee to start a separate inquiry specifically into the use of NDAs, and that report was published earlier this year in June 2019. The Committee heard evidence that widespread use of NDAs within employment law was preventing the proper investigation of unlawful discrimination in the workplace.

Employer Responsibility

It is the employer’s responsibility to make sure that they create an environment where harassment is not tolerated. If there is any harassment it is their responsibility to take appropriate action to make sure it is eliminated. In January 2020 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released new guidance to employers on dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. The guidance states that all businesses must make sure that “employees come to work knowing they will be safe and protected from discrimination, victimisation and harassment of any kind”.

Remedies to Sexual Harassment

An employee may want to raise the issue informally with their line manager or they may seek to inform HR about the issue. This is an important first step for dealing with sexual harassment and could allow an informal mediation between the employees involved to come to an amicable solution.

However, an employee may want to raise a formal grievance through the company’s procedures. This should be made in writing and focus on the facts of any sexual harassment incident. It will usually be the line manager that deals with this but if the complaint is about the line manager then an employee should seek out another manager or HR to raise the grievance with. An employer should remain fair, reasonable and objective when dealing with a grievance, be empathetic to the situation and investigate any allegations thoroughly. They should seek to resolve the issue before it is potentially taken to an employment tribunal by the employee.

During an investigation by the employer the accused employee may be suspended or transferred to another area of the business whilst it is being undertaken. This is a temporary measure and may allow for a safer working environment and negate the possibility of victimisation after a grievance has been raised. If the sexual harassment is particularly serious, for example, amounting to sexual assault, then an employee may raise the issue with the police. If this happens it does not negate the need for the employer to still carry out a proper investigation of the issue and deal with the matter in an employment context. This could involve suspending or dismissing the accused employee after carrying out a thorough and reasonable investigation.

After exhausting the company’s internal grievance procedures an employee may wish to take the claim to an employment tribunal. However, before this they must apply to the ACAS early conciliation service to try to come to a mediated solution. If this fails and the claim does proceed to an employment tribunal then compensation is the most common remedy.

If you would like to discuss an incident or situation where you feel that you have been sexually harassed, then please call us in the strictest confidence. For trusted, accredited legal advice, call us today on 0330 221 0684 or visit our website for more. At KLG we have dedicated employment law professionals, who will work with you sensitively throughout. With more and more cases of sexual harassment being reported in the workplace, it’s important both women and men have understanding of their legal rights.

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