UK

'Sacked For No Reason' - How Sexual Harassment Forced These Women Out Of Jobs

'I lived in fear of being asked to go into the back room for a chat with the boss.'

12/11/2017 08:09 GMT

From Hollywood and Westminster to the offices of estate agents and the kitchens of restaurant staff, stories of sexual harassment at work and beyond have been surfacing every day since the Weinstein scandal broke.

But what happens to those women who feel there’s no one to turn to - and even finding themselves cast adrift by management if they do complain?

HuffPost UK speaks to women whose experiences of sexual harassment forced them out of their jobs, and the experts who explain what you can do if you are worried about victimisation.

Sarah* first experienced sexual harassment in the workplace when she was 16 years old. While she was working in a small shop, the owner, who was about 30 at the time, “took a bit of a liking” to her.

olaser via Getty Images
Women have been forced out their jobs in some cases of sexual harassment. File image.

“He became very hands on, very fast. So he would touch me as I walked past him. He would squeeze past me… He tried to kiss me one day.

“He engineered it that we were the only two people left in the shop. And I just didn’t know what to do… he was my boss.

“From my point of view he was in a position of authority so I didn’t think you could... say anything.”

Sarah, now 50, says she felt she had no choice but to hand in her notice.

“It felt awful because I think that, when you’re very young you think ‘I’m going to do this, and then I’m going to do that’, and it made me think ‘oh goodness, when I go work for someone else, is that something that’s going to happen’?

“I think, certainly, it did make me a lot more aware of people and what they might do and how they might behave.”

He engineered it that we were the only two people left in the shop. And I just didn’t know what to do… he was my boss. Sarah

And even as she got older, there were things Sarah felt she had to put up with because “in sales it [sexual harassment] was just what happened”.

A Trade Union Congress (TUC) report last year found that on average 52% of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment but that in some industries it was much higher. In hospitality industries it is 67%.

Sarah worked with clients in the hospitality business while she was in her 20s working in ad sales in London.

Many of the comments she would encounter from clients would leave her feeling “uncomfortable” and “intimidated”, with male clients making comments such as: “Look at her”, “she is really quite hot, that’s why I got you to come in”.

“It got to the point where you just kind of expected and accepted that you would get lewd comments,” she says.  

One day things became even more serious when she went for a meeting with a potential new customer and he locked the door of the shop and started trying to kiss her.

“Within about 10 minutes he was all over me like a rash, trying to kiss me, all sorts, and I was really trying to fight him off,” she says.

“Part of me felt horribly guilty. Because I thought I shouldn’t have got myself into this position.”

She managed to extricate herself from the situation and reported the matter to the police, although she says no further action was taken against the man.

When Sarah was 40, the owner of the sales company she worked in would “squeeze past” her at “every opportunity” and asked her to have an affair with him.

“My marriage had just ended six months before that and I was incredibly vulnerable and, again, it just took me back to being very young, to being 16 and this completely inappropriate comment and I just didn’t know what to do.”

Sarah was a single mother by this point and had to make the difficult position to hand in her notice.

“I had to resign because I felt terrible. I just felt awful.”

Sarah says that she did not know who she should take the complaint to in any of these cases, particularly the ones when she was 16 and 40, because both involved the owner of the company.

When asked how she feels that these men essentially forced her out of work, Sarah says: “It makes me angry. It’s unfair that they put someone in that position, purely because they need a power fix. That’s all it’s about.”

TUC
Scarlet Harris, women’s equality officer at the TUC, says some women want to leave their jobs because of sexual harassment but have commitments which mean they can't.

Scarlet Harris, women’s equality officer at the TUC, says some women who want to leave their jobs may feel they can’t because of their financial responsibilities.

“The financial imperative for women to stay in a job where they don’t feel safe in some cases or where they are being harassed or discriminated against ... is something that’s really important to highlight,” she tells HuffPost UK.

In research conducted by the TUC, 11% of women aged 25 to 39 said that sexual harassment made them want to leave their job but that they couldn’t because of financial or other factors.

Joy* was in her early 40s when she lost her job as a negotiator at an estate agents in London. She believes that she was sacked from her role because she complained about sexual harassment in the company a few weeks previously.

Joy says the incident happened after a male manager asked to speak to her one day in a small room in the office.

When they were alone in the room together, she said: “He grabbed me for a full crotch hug and then… he held my face and kissed both my cheeks. This guy was huge, about 6ft 5.”

Although the manager’s actions made her feel very “uncomfortable”, she says: “The company’s actions were worse”.

She says that there was a “very old boys network culture” at her workplace and was concerned that this man had “access to all these really young negotiators” – most of whom were female.

“He would just come into the office… and grab a very young negotiator next to me and give her kisses on each cheek and I just thought he is strolling into every office in the company and just doing that to women on a pretext of being friendly,” she recalls.

She believes that his actions towards women in the offices was a “complete power play”.

I lived in fear of being asked to go into the back room for a chat with the boss and then being sacked for no reason. Joy

So she took the matter further and had a meeting with the company’s management team. They guaranteed that she would not be alone in a room with him again.

When asked if she was satisfied, she said that she was – although she now believes that this left her unprotected for what happened next.

She says: “The meeting wasn’t quite satisfactory but I thought it would be unreasonable for me not to accept it. They said he would never be alone with me again. I can’t really complain about that - or didn’t think I could.

“I should have asked for more assurances. He should have been sent on a course or something. That would make him admit that he can’t go around touching people.”

Within three weeks of making the complaint, she was sacked. Joy believes the two incidents are connected, but as she was employed for less than a year she didn’t feel as though she could challenge the decision.

“I had no black marks against my name,” she says. “People didn’t believe me when I said I’d just been.. (fired) because I was doing so well in the workplace.” 

Although she found a role with another estate agents, the incident had a lasting impact on her confidence.

She says that every Sunday for six months she would “burst out crying”, knowing that the following day she would have to go into work.

“I lived in fear of being asked to go into the back room for a chat with the boss and then being sacked for no reason. And it sounds completely irrational,” she adds.

“I didn’t feel like a victim when it happened, because I’m strong, I’m of a certain age, but it was the company’s reaction then victimised me.”

Victimisation can happen to women who report incidents of sexual harassment.

The TUC report ‘Still just a bit of banter?’ published last year found that there are still many examples of inadequate management responses, “from moving the complainant to a different department, to disbelieving or even victimising the complainant”.

TUC

Victimisation can manifest itself in different ways, from a woman losing her job or being passed over for promotion, to a woman being treated differently in the workplace after filing a complaint.

Harris says that victimisation can occur when women make a complaint about sexual harassment, but was keen not to let this deter claimants from coming forward.

“Women should be reporting in full confidence that they’re not going to be victimised and that their manager and HR department will take action.

“I think that is all part of the story really about how we make sure that women are protected and that they genuinely can make a complaint without fear of it damaging their jobs or relationships at work and that they will be treated fairly,” Harris says.

Harris lists a number of options available to women who face sexual harassment, detailed below:

What to do if you experience sexual harassment:

Keep a record of what’s happening – either a diary or copies of online correspondence

Find out about your employment rights – can do on TUC website

Confide in someone – such as HR or a friend who you trust

Check staff handbook to check what the company’s policies are

Speak to your union representative

If you’re not in a union, then join one

If the sexual harassment turns criminal, contact the police

“Don’t let (victimisation) stop you,” Harris adds. “All the legal rights are in your favour and it’s about women knowing those rights in order to assert them.”

Joy is now her own boss and runs an estate agents with her husband in a London borough. Speaking of the real estate industry on the whole, she believes that the commission system can present an opportunity for a manager to take advantage of the situation, should he wish to.

She says: “I think it is the sort of job where it gives a male manager the opportunity to abuse if that’s what they want to do, because normally the manager distributes the leads (lettings).”

Although traditionally male dominated, Joy says that this is now changing, but cautiously adds: “With the pay structure of people being so heavily commissioned, the pressure to impress your boss is there so I don’t know how that can change.”

*Sarah and Joy’s real names have been changed to protect their identities.