What to do if you think you are being sexually harassed at work
Sexual harassment at work has returned to the headlines after US film producer Harvey Weinstein apologised about the way he had “behaved with colleagues in the past”. It came after a newspaper reported a number of sexual harassment allegations against him.
What sort of behaviour counts as sexual harassment at work? And how should you deal with it if you think it is happening to you?
What is sexual harassment at work?
Put simply, sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature.
This harassment can be verbal or non-verbal and may make you feel intimidated or uncomfortable.
You do not need to have objected to a person’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted, Citizens Advice points out.
It can include:
- Sexual comments or jokes – in person or via email
- Inappropriate touching, such as pinching, patting or hugging
- Unwelcome sexual advances or other forms of sexual assault
- Staring in a sexually suggestive manner or wolf whistling
- Displaying images of a sexual nature – for example, a colleague may put up a topless calendar or picture which you find offensive
- Being treated less favourably as a result of rejecting any such conduct
What action can you take?
Anyone who experiences sexual harassment at work in the UK is protected by the Equality Act 2010.
In some cases, telling someone their behaviour is making you uncomfortable may be enough to stop it, says employment solicitor James Watkins, from Slater and Gordon.
Confiding in another colleague at work could also help you to decide what to do, he says.
If not, you can:
- Tell your manager – Citizen’s Advice suggests you put this in writing and keep a copy
- Keep a diary recording the harassment, when it happens and who witnessed it
- Speak to your HR department or trade union, who can offer advice – you can stay anonymous if you choose
- Make a formal complaint – all employers are required to have a grievance procedure – where you can set out in writing the “who” “what” “where” of the harassment and how it made you feel
If these options don’t work, you can make a claim to an employment tribunal.
What is involved in making a claim?
Before making a claim to an employment tribunal you have to go through an early conciliation process provided by mediation group Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) – it may be able to negotiate a settlement or practical solution for you.
If this is not possible, you can make a claim online.
- Claims can be made by women or men, including employees, apprentices and job applicants
- You must bring a claim within three months of the act of harassment
- A person can bring a claim against their employer and the perpetrator simultaneously
- A witness statement detailing the harassment is needed, but this does not have to be read out by the claimant
- A tribunal judge will consider whether a “reasonable” person would have been offended by the behaviour
- Employment tribunal fees have been scrapped, meaning you only pay for any legal representation you choose to have
‘I left in tears and signed off sick’
“I was sexually harassed at work by two men, who had worked there for a long time.
“One of them said they would like to put me over the desk and ravish me and they would look at my legs when I was walking past.
“I did bring this up with a senior manager, but he shouted at me and said it was my word against my colleague… I left in tears and signed off sick…” Jane, London
How big is this problem?
Research published last year by the TUC suggested more than half of women say they have been sexually harassed at work – and most admit to not reporting it.
It found that in nine out of 10 cases the perpetrator was male, and nearly one in five women (17%) said it was their line manager or someone with direct authority over them.
Reasons given for not reporting the harassment included embarrassment (20%), fear they would not be taken seriously (24%), or that reporting it would affect their relationships at work (28%).
Men can also be victims of workplace sexual harassment.
Help and advice
- Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service): 0300 123 1100
- Citizen’s Advice, England / Wales:
- Public Concern at Work: 020 7404 6609
- Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS): 0808 800 0082