Experiencing sexual harassment is one of the most difficult situations a worker can face.
Sexual harassment encompasses any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. If you have been subjected to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment then you may have been the victim of sexual harassment. Acts of sexual harassment may be verbal, non-verbal or physical. The Equality Act 2010 gives individuals the right not to be sexually harassed at work and aims to preclude the abuse of power, through conducting unwanted and inappropriate behaviour. The general test is how the recipient perceives the behaviour, as what may seem like innocent conduct to one person may be considered offensive by another.
Organisations and businesses should have clear policies about what type of behaviour is unacceptable and what is deemed to be sexual harassment. Something can still be considered sexual harassment even if the harasser did not intend for it to be. Workers are provided with protection from both one-off incidents and on-going incidents.
Some types of sexual harassment are a criminal matter as well as an employment matter. ACAS provides guidance as to what constitutes such conduct. This includes and is not limited to:
- Written or verbal comments of a sexual nature;
- Remarks about an employee’s appearance;
- Questions about an employee’s sex life;
- Offensive jokes;
- Unwanted physical contact;
- Emails with content of a sexual nature.
Workplace policies and procedures should be put in place to address any reports of unwanted sexual conduct before the problem is dealt with externally. Any such policy should confirm whom a report of concerning conduct should be made to – employees should be given the opportunity to have such conduct addressed informally, if they wish.
Any complaint which includes either sexual assault or physical threats is a criminal act and should be reported to the police. The complaint can, however, still be dealt with by an employer through its disciplinary procedure whilst criminal proceedings are ongoing. Employers must always ensure that complaints of this nature are taken very seriously and handled in a fair and sensitive manner.
Complaints of sexual harassment will typically only be heard at an Employment Tribunal if the worker makes a claim within three months from the date of the incident. You must therefore act promptly if you are considering taking action against someone for sexual harassment.
As a first step you should check if there are workplace policies or procedures to address the issue internally and follow any such procedure. You may be required, for example, to write a grievance letter detailing the incident. It is advisable that any evidence of the incident is collated, as this will assist you in bringing a claim forward. If the harassment is ongoing it is advisable to keep a record of every incident, especially if the conduct has been particularly distressing. If you think you are the victim of a crime (for example, sexual assault) then this should be reported to the police as well as your employer.
The Employment tribunal treat cases of sexual harassment very seriously and successful claims can lead to large awards. Please contact one of the members of our employment team for further advice.
Article written by Sophie Wahba.