Why sexual harassment should be properly addressed in the workplace

woman being sexually harassed at work

More than a third of women have experienced sexual harassment at work – and, since the allegations in the entertainment industry came to light last year sparking the #MeToo movement, the number of accusations across all sectors of society continues to rise.

A recent report from The Women and Equalities Committee also suggests that the government and employers have been slow to take steps to address the problem – and the committee has called for them to make tackling sexual harassment a priority.

Laura Evans, associate and specialist employment law solicitor at Nelsons, discusses the report and examines the recommendations that have been proposed to improve the situation.

She said: “Sexual harassment has a devastating impact on those who are subjected to it. Because of this, the report details a number of focus points in an attempt to change workplace cultures and attitudes towards sexual harassment, giving victims greater ability to raise concerns and bring the unwanted conduct to an end.”

What is sexual harassment?

“Under the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is defined as unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which violates someone’s dignity, makes them feel intimated, degraded or humiliated, or creates a hostile or offensive environment. It can include sexual comments or jokes, physical behaviour, displaying images of a sexual nature or sending sexual content in emails.

“It’s important to remember that you don’t need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted. Conduct can still be unwanted even if the employee has been exposed to it for years and even used ‘banter’ themselves as a coping method.”

What are the current penalties for businesses?

“According to the Women and Equalities Committee report, there is not an adequate incentive for employers to take sexual harassment seriously. Whereas, when it comes to other areas of law – such as data protection and money laundering – the possibility of punitive fines has encouraged employers to take active steps to comply with legislation.

“The report states that there is little in the way of mandatory actions which employers are required to take to guard against sexual harassment in the workplace. Under the current legislation, employers will have a defence against claims for sexual harassment where they can show they took ‘all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment’.”

Are there any other reasons why the current legislation is not working?

“In the absence of any central enforcement agency assigned to deal with sexual harassment, responsibility for notifying allegations lies with the individual victim. If they chose not to come forward to make a complaint, perhaps because they feel too intimated to do so, the harassment is likely to continue.

“There was also previously legislation in place which specifically protected workers against harassment from third parties. However, this was repealed on 1 October 2013, causing employers’ obligations in relation to harassment by those outside the business to become unclear.

“Finally, the report states that the current legislation does not necessarily protect those classed as volunteers or interns.”

What are the proposals to fix this?

“The report calls on the government, regulators and employers to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda by raising awareness and making enforcement and reporting processes work better. It lists a number of recommendations as to how the situation can be improved:

  • Making it a mandatory requirement for employers to protect employees from sexual harassment and extending this protection to volunteers and interns.
  • Giving the Equality and Human Rights Commission responsibility for enforcing employers’ duties and imposing fines.
  • Reintroducing the concept of third party harassment.
  • Extending the time limit to bring a tribunal claim for sexual harassment from three months to six months.
  • Requiring a guilty employer to pay an employee’s legal fees at the end of a claim.
  • Limiting the extent to which an employee can be required to keep allegations confidential when signing settlement agreements.

What could the changes mean for me?

“Tighter legal requirements in relation to sexual harassment in the workplace can only be good news for the safety of employees. With an increasing amount of pressure being put on the government, along with the wider public interest showing no signs of abating, it may only be a matter of time before we see new legislation to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

“While employers will have to wait and see what, if any, recommendations are implemented, businesses should already be taking action to ensure sexual harassment is properly addressed in the workplace.

“As a minimum, I’d recommend companies having policies in place which deal with bullying, harassment, equal opportunities and discrimination – as well as training staff to understand their obligations and taking appropriate action where policies are breached.”

Under the current legislation, what should I do if I’m being sexual harassed?

“If you’re being sexually harassed by someone you work with, you should firstly tell your manager – make sure you put it in writing and keep a copy of the letter or email. It’s also worth talking to your HR team or trade union for advice.

“Make sure you collect evidence – keep a diary recording all of the times you’ve been harassed – and tell the police if you think you’re a victim of a crime. If there is someone at work that continues to harass you, you can also raise a formal complaint.”

About the author

Laura Evans, associate and specialist employment law solicitor at Nelsons.

Nelsons was established in 1983 and provides legal services for businesses and legal advice for individuals. Nelsons’ experience and depth of resource has also enabled the company to offer services to other solicitors through Fusion Legal – a mutually-beneficial referrals and support network for law firms. The firm has been recognised by the leading, independently researched Legal 500 as a Regional Heavyweight for the last eight years and is recommended by them in 20 practice areas. The firm is recommended by Chambers and Partners and also features in The Lawyer’s UK 200 Annual Report of the UK’s largest 200 law firms.

Nelsons has offices throughout the East Midlands in Nottingham, Leicester & Derby.

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