Sexual harassment and sexual assault have been brought to the fore this year, with perpetrators named in Hollywood, politics and many other walks of life. The #MeToo hashtag has been widely used and the Silence Breakers who spoke out about sexual harassment were chosen as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2017.
A recent ComRes study for BBC Radio 5 Live found that in a poll of 2,031 British adults, more than half of the women surveyed (53%) and a fifth of the men (20%) replied that they had experienced sexual harassment at work. Most did not report it.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment can be verbal or non-verbal. It includes inappropriate sexual comments and jokes, displaying sexual images, inappropriate touching (pinching, patting, hugging), and unwelcome sexual advances.
Rejecting any of the above can lead to workers receiving unfair treatment, from repeats of the above behaviour to an escalation of the harassment, or issues such as being passed over for promotion.
Why do many not report sexual harassment?
Reasons can range from the victim feeling they are somehow to blame to concerns about how they might be viewed in the workplace if they accuse a colleague, especially if that person is senior to them.
The organisation Rape Crisis England and Wales (www.rapecrisis.org.uk), says on its website:
“Through our frontline work, we know that sexual violence survivors often struggle with feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame that can make it difficult to talk to anyone about their experiences. Survivors also often fear that others will blame them or that they won’t be believed. Sexual violence myths can reinforce these feelings and fears.”
NHS Choices (www.nhs.uk ) says that “It is not uncommon for a victim of sexual assault to have no physical injuries or signs of their assault”, and points out that “A sexual assault is never the fault of the person who is abused.”
What legal protection do workers have?
The Equality Act 2010 protects workers against sexual harassment. It 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”.
Employees can also lodge a complaint about “behaviour that they find offensive even if it is not directed at them”.
All employers must have a grievance procedure in place, which allows workers to set out what happened and how it made them feel.
What to do if you experience sexual harassment in the workplace?
In some cases, for example when a colleague tells an inappropriate sexual joke, you may find it is enough to inform them that their behaviour is making you uncomfortable.
In cases of repeated comments or physical touching, it is a good idea to keep a diary of times and any witnesses to the behaviour. If you inform a manager or the HR department, make sure you put it in writing and keep a copy of your complaint. Your trade union representative can also offer advice on the best way to proceed for you.
A serious sexual assault or rape can be handled through legal channels, but if you prefer not to go to the police there are also specialist services and organisations that can help. These include:
- Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs), which have trained medical and other professionals who can offer medical and emotional support
- Your own GP or practice nurse, or call NHS 111
- Organisations such as Victim Support, Women’s Aid, The Survivors Trust and Survivors UK
Making a claim
The first step to making a claim is to undertake an early conciliation process through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS).
If this is not an option or you are not happy with the results, you can make a claim against the perpetrator and your employer, within three months of the incident.
This can be done online at: https://www.employmenttribunals.service.gov.uk/apply
Job applicants, apprentices, contractors and employees can all lodge a claim.
There are no longer any employment tribunal fees and the tribunal judge will make a decision on your case and award damages where appropriate.
For further help
Acas: www.acas.org.uk; 0300 123 1100
Citizen’s Advice: www.citizensadvice.org.uk
Public Concern at Work: www.pcaw.org.uk; 020 7404 6609
Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS): www.equalityadvisoryservice.com; 0808 800 0082
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CMS Vocational Training Ltd can be contacted on 01924 470 477.