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The Law on Sexual Harassment

In October 2017, numerous allegations of sexual abuse were made against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein. Since then, many more allegations of this nature, not just within Hollywood but throughout the world and in many different industries, have dominated the headlines. In the UK, several MPs have been accused of sexual harassment, and these revelations were quickly followed by calls for those who are guilty to be held accountable for their actions.

While the #MeToo social media movement – which empowered millions of people to speak out about their experiences of harassment ­– has helped to shine a spotlight on the scale of abuse generally, one of the most important issues that the Hollywood and Westminster scandals have highlighted is the extent to which workplace sexual harassment contributes to the wider problem. A BBC survey conducted in October 2017 found that half of women and a fifth of men have been harassed at work in the UK.

Many people ask why victims do not speak up at the time they were harassed. There are various reasons why employees remain quiet about inappropriate conduct they have experienced in the workplace. They may fear losing their job, that their complaint will not be taken seriously or that they will be victimised by their colleagues as a result of making the complaint. Another important reason is that they might not know what behaviour actually constitutes sexual harassment. It is essential all employees – male and female, junior and senior – are aware of the law that protects them against sexual harassment in the workplace, and what to do if they are subject to such conduct.

The Law on Sexual Harassment in the UK

The Equality Act 2010 protects anyone from sexual harassment at work in the UK. Under the Act, sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination, and includes any behaviour that intends to or does:

  • violate a person’s dignity; or
  • create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Your employer has a duty to take all reasonable steps to protect you from this kind of conduct.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

In simple terms, it is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. The term includes a wide range of verbal and physical actions, including:

  • sexual comments or jokes, whether in person, by email or over the phone;
  • physical contact, such as hugging or patting;
  • all forms of sexual assault;
  • displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature;
  • unwanted contact in relation to a person’s gender; and
  • negative treatment after rejecting sexual advances.

It is important to be aware that an inappropriate comment made to you by another employee is enough to constitute sexual harassment – there does not have to be a physical element. Further, your employer should rarely accept the excuse that something was done “just for a laugh”; if the behaviour has offended you, that is what counts.

The conduct must occur in the course of employment, although in some cases sexual harassment can happen at social events outside of the workplace. 

What to do if you have been sexually harassed at work?

Often it will be enough to stop the behaviour to tell the person that it has made you feel uncomfortable. However, where this is not appropriate, you should do the following:

  • Notify your manager in writing, and keep a copy of the letter or email.
  • Tell your HR team and trade union. They should provide you with support and information.
  • Make a note of each incident, including the nature, time and place that it occurred. If your complaint escalates to a formal grievance or employment tribunal claim, this information will be key.

If the harassment does not stop after taking an informal approach, you can raise an official complaint. You should consult your employer’s grievance policy for this. This policy should provide important information on:

  • how to raise concerns about inappropriate behaviour;
  • how complaints will be investigated and resolved;
  • how you will be supported while a complaint is in progress;
  • issues of victimisation following a complaint being made;
  • information on when the police may be contacted, for example where there is an alleged physical attack.

If the formal grievance procedure does not produce a satisfactory resolution for you, you have the option to bring a claim before an employment tribunal.

Employment tribunal claims for sexual harassment

In deciding whether sexual harassment has occurred, the tribunal will look at all the evidence and consider the following: whether the conduct was unwanted, whether it occurred in the course of employment and whether the claimant’s reaction was reasonable. For the last point, the tribunal must consider whether a reasonable person would find the conduct intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive. The tribunal may come to the conclusion that the employee’s reaction was oversensitive, as no reasonable person would have reacted in this way.

Contact our Employment Law Specialists in London Today

At Cavendish Employment Law, we specialise in all aspects of employment law, including discrimination, maternity and family rights, grievances, equal opportunities and tribunal claims. If you are concerned about harassment at work, we can help. We have advised many employees who have experienced inappropriate conduct in the workplace, including executives, and financial and banking professionals, helping them to get the right outcome to any grievance or tribunal claim. For advice and representation relating to sexual harassment at work, or for any other employment law matter, please call us on 0203 811 3094 or contact us online.


Employers’ Response to Sexual Harassment Comes Und
Improving Workplace Equality

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