What to do if you're experiencing sexual harassment at work

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has thrown a light on sexual harassment in the workplace [Photo: Kat Jayne via Pexels]

As the world continues to recoil in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the spotlight has been thrown onto the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

If there’s one slight positive we can take from the horror of it all, perhaps it’s the fact that some women have been inspired to speak out about their own experiences. 

And if the response to the #MeToo hashtag is anything to go by women are stepping forward in their droves.

The simple social media hashtag was originally started by actress Alyssa Milano to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Many of the stories people have shared have happened in the workplace – from people who’ve been catcalled by colleagues to those who’ve been physically molested by an inappropriate boss.

But while highlighting the problem and giving a voice to women who have found themselves the victims of sexual harassment is important, so too is providing women with advice on what to do if they find themselves on the receiving end of unwanted attention at work.

The legal definition, within the Equality Act 2010, states that sexual harassment is behaviour that is either meant to, or has the effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

TUC and Everyday Sexism, 52% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work with nearly a quarter being touched without invitation, and a fifth experiencing a sexual advance.

The survey revealed that the form the sexual harassment took varied from being subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature, which 32% of women had experienced, to receiving comments of a sexual nature about their bodies and clothes (28% of women).

Nearly a quarter (23%) of women have experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work, while a fifth of women have experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work.

Even more worryingly 12% of women have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work.

More than half of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a survey [Photo: Getty]

An earlier study by the law firm Slater and Gordon found that 60% of women had experienced inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, while nearly a quarter of women have experienced a senior colleague making a pass at them at some point in their career.

But despite saying that the behaviour of their colleagues was often degrading and embarrassing only 27 per cent reported the behaviour to someone senior. While the TUC survey found that 80% of women who’d been harassed kept quiet about it.

“Women who have been sexually harassed often don’t speak up for fear of not being believed, particularly if the person harassing them is more senior, which is often the case,” Harriet Bowtell, an employment lawyer from Slater and Gordon told Yahoo Style UK.

“They may also feel embarrassed, ashamed or simply scared of what might happen in terms of reprisals and the impact it could have on their career.”

The problem is there are a whole host of misconceptions surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace. But if we can try to demystify them we might stand a chance of encouraging more women to step forward and report it.

“The law is already there to protect people; what needs to change is how employers deal with sexual harassment in the workplace and what they do to prevent it happening in the first place,” explains Harriet Bowtell.

“Employers need to make sure they are creating a culture in which staff feel comfortable coming forward and in which measures are in place to make sure matters are taken seriously and dealt with promptly.”

“There needs to be a zero tolerance approach with clear anti-harassment policies and training to educate staff about what is and isn’t acceptable.”

What should you do if you find yourself being sexually harassed at work?

“The most important piece of advice for people experiencing sexual harassment is to speak to someone about it,” says Bowtell.

“If someone at work is making comments of a sexual nature or behaving in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it’s sometimes enough to talk to the individual, explain how it’s making you feel and ask them to stop.”

If you don’t feel able to do that, instead Harriet suggests talking to one of their colleagues, a more senior manager or someone from HR, if your company has an HR function.

“If for example, the perpetrator is the manager, then you may need to speak to somebody outside the company for advice such as your trade union, citizen’s advice or a lawyer,” she continues.

And according to Scarlet Harris, policy expert at the TUC there are some other steps you can take too. She suggests keeping a diary of everything that happens, logging dates, locations, what was said and whether there were witnesses.

She also suggests finding out what your employer’s policy is on sexual harassment. “This may be in a bullying and harassment policy. It may even be in Health and Safety policies and safety in the workplace. It might be in a dignity at work policy. Find out how to make a complaint and what the procedure is,” she advises.

“As well as investigating the allegation/disciplining the perpetrator, your employer can do other things to keep you safe (eg. Moving the perpetrator to a different work space, ensuring that you are not alone with them at work, checking that you are safe travelling to and from work),” Scarlet Harris continues.

The TUC also say employer’s policies should also cover online harassment and have clear policies about use of social media, work property (eg. Phones and computers) to perpetrate sexual harassment.

What if you’ve done all this and it’s still continuing or you’re not happy with the way your company has handled it? Then it could be time to take your case to an employment tribunal, but be aware that you need to file your complaint within three months of the incident taking place.

The Employment Tribunals Commission and your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau can offer guidance and advice about this type of complaint and the site Safeworkers.co.uk has some excellent information.

Women should be encouraged to talk to someone if they are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace [Photo: Kaique Rocha via Pexels]

There are certain instances that require you to take things outside the confines of the workplace. If for example filing a grievance does not resolve the issue, or at any time the sexual harassment you experience becomes physical, then you should report it to the police.

“If you are physically attacked or threatened (eg. Rape threats, physical assault) contact the police,” the TUC policy expert advises. “If you have been sexually assaulted or raped, contact Rape Crisis”

And what if you witness a colleague being harassed at work? Harriet Bowtell suggests offering them your full support.

“People can find it very difficult to talk about sexual harassment so it’s important they know that you’re there to support them, and to listen to them if they choose to confide in you,” she says.

“If that happens then gently suggest that they raise it with someone else, depending on the situation. If they don’t, the risk is it may carry on and may happen to other people as well.”

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