Would you understand what could be considered as sexual harassment in the workplace?

Unfortunately, harassment within the workplace is not uncommon and sexual harassment, still affects many organisations. One report from the TUC found that 52% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work.

Would you understand what amounts to sexual harassment, or would you see behaviour as just normal office banter?

Sexual harassment is defined as:

“unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, that has either the purpose or effect of violating that person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”.

There are many myths about what is classed as sexual harassment so let’s set the record straight!

Myth 1 – Banter is not sexual harassment.

Wrong. Making remarks to a colleague (e.g. about their clothes or body) could be classed as harassment. Basically, any comment that can make someone feel uncomfortable and can be related to their sex, exceeds the boundaries of what is acceptable and is sexual harassment. This can include compliments if this crosses a line and are sexual in nature.

Generally, ‘banter’ has no place in the workplace as, even if it is not of a sexual natures, it may still amount to harassment.

Myth 2 – If the victim does not complain it is not sexual harassment

Wrong. The victim does not need to make a formal complaint for it to be classed as harassment. It could be that another employee has heard or witnessed unacceptable behaviour and makes a complaint.

Myth 3 – Sexual harassment always involves a physical act

Wrong. Under the Equality Act the definition of Sexual Harassment is very broad. For example, it could include leering at colleagues in a manner that is deemed overtly sexual or the display of pornographic material.

Myth 4 – Sexual harassment can be committed only by a man against a woman

Wrong. Although when people think of sexual harassment they generally think of a man’s unwanted actions to a woman, there is nothing to stop a man claiming harassment against a woman, or an individual of the same sex and vice versa.

Myth 5 – A junior employee cannot sexually harass a superior.

Wrong.  Status or position in an organisation makes no difference. Understandably, most cases and reports involve harassment by a senior person (as they abuse their position of power), and junior employees often feels they cannot speak up about it.

Myth 6 – A comment out of work hours cannot be harassment.

Wrong. Sexual harassment can be committed at a social engagement involving colleagues and there is no mitigation because there was alcohol present.  

Myth 7 – As an employee, you cannot be personally liable or personally sued.

Wrong. An employee can be held personally liable, and they can be named as a party in any employment tribunal proceedings (in addition to the employer). There have been cases where employees have been found liable and required to pay compensation to colleagues because of harassment.

These myths highlight the importance of ensuring that employers and employees understand what behaviour could be classified as sexual harassment.

Complaints about harassment can lead to discrimination claims and can be very disruptive and time consuming to deal with. More importantly, any culture of harassment will be detrimental to the business and affect the bottom line.

So how do you stop harassment and avoid claims? Well the starting point is to send a clear message that you are an equal opportunities employer and that you will not tolerate inappropriate behaviour. You need the relevant policies and procedures in place that set out what is acceptable and what is not. You then need to communicate this clearly and provide training to your managers and employees.

You can also provide confidential routes to allow people to raise concerns e.g. providing a confidential emails address. Any complaints must be taken seriously and investigated – and appropriate action taken. Creating and maintaining a positive culture can take time and means clearly communicating that you have zero-tolerance to any form of harassment.

If you require any assistance relating to equal opportunities; from policy writing, training, or helping manage/investigate complaints, please contact us on 01702 216573.

You may also want to look at YourHR.space as this will ensure you have the right policy documents in place and that they are well communicated. This will help demonstrate your commitment to equal opportunities and non-discrimination.

Fiona Haworth

You can contact Fiona on fiona@practical-hr.co.uk

If you feel that you need guidance or advice on this matter, please call Practical HR on 01702 216573 or email Fiona on the above.