Sexual Harassment At Work: When And How You Should Speak Out

Almost a quarter of women aged 16 to 30 have experienced it at work.

Sexual harassment remains rife in UK workplaces with 23 per cent of women aged between 16 and 30 report having been a victim of such behaviour at work, but only eight per cent of those affected have reported it.

These were the results of poll by the Young Women’s Trust, who found the reason many had not voiced their concerns is because they feared losing their job or being given fewer hours. Others just didn’t know how to go about making a complaint.

So what constitutes sexual harassment? And how and when do you speak out?

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What is the law on sexual harassment?

Although everyone may have an opinion on what constitutes ‘harassment’, it is a term defined within UK law.

Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 makes sexual harassment in the workplace an unlawful form of discrimination. It defines it as any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which violates your dignity, makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated, or creates a hostile or offensive environment.

Tim Wilkinson, barrister at Parklane Plowden Chambers in Leeds and Newcastle, explains that when considering whether the conduct meets the requirements, a tribunal will consider how the victim perceived the situation. “One person may find something offensive where another may not,” he tells HuffPost UK.

What type of behaviour constitutes sexual harassment?

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau says examples of this can include displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature, sending emails with a sexual content, sexual comments or jokes, or physical behaviour including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault and suggestive looks, staring or leering.

“This is a judgment call for yourself, the line that you draw may be different to others,” says Richard Ryan, a barrister also at Parklane Plowden. “It does not matter whether the perpetrator intended to cause offense or not. In the modern day, a comment on Facebook about a work colleague could amount to harassment or be used as evidence in support of subsequent harassment.”

You don’t need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered “unwanted”.

Who should I tell at work?

You should normally start by telling your line manager or HR representative but double check your individual workplace policies (you’ll typically find these in an policy document or induction manual).

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to your boss or someone internally, ACAS has a helpline you could call, or if you are a member of a union then contact your representative. In some cases it might be appropriate to contact the police.

At what point do I tell my employer?

Emma Digby, solicitor at Bell and Buxton Solicitors in Sheffield, says it doesn’t matter if the incident has only happened once, you can still begin to pursue it. “A one off act satisfies the definition of harassment,” she says. “It doesn’t even have to be direct – you can just overhear a comment to someone else in the workplace.”

It also doesn’t matter if you’re the only one of your colleagues who is bothered by the behaviour, says Digby, and it’s irrelevant if you personally have participated in workplace banter before.

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Do I need evidence that this happened?

Often harassment is one word against another but that is not to say the alleged victim cannot be believed. Ryan says: “Sometimes there is no firm proof (CCTV footage, emails) or third party witnesses. Therefore the evidence will be your own witness evidence, that is, your reporting of the matter and affirmation that you are telling the truth.

“Of course, if the alleged perpetrator denies it then it may be difficult for your employer to decide either way, but not impossible. There may be other background evidence, which helps to establish the harassment, on balance.”

Who is liable for a sexual harassment claim?

The law means both employers and employees are liable for harassment that happens in a workplace. The company is responsible for anything that happens between staff and the individual perpetrator is responsible for their behaviour.

An employer may avoid corporate liability if it can successfully argue that it has taken all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination from occurring.

Can I tell other people about what has happened afterwards?

Digby says: “Many employers have sought to protect their reputation by settling any claims for harassment with settlement agreements that often contain robust non-disclosure obligations (NDAs) preventing the employee from discussing the allegations with any third party or from reporting them to the press.”

These practices have come under considerable scrutiny and criticism following revelations that victims of alleged harassment by Harvey Weinstein were given NDAs to sign, so the allegations were suppressed and the alleged harassment was allowed to continue undeterred.

However that might be set to change as the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published a report that suggested the government should legislate against these. Solicitors have also been warned it may count as negligence for them to prepare such an agreement.