Sexual harassment in the workplace

Emily Murray

Unfortunately, the issue of sexual harassment has been much in the news recently. It is also very much something of which you need to be aware when at work.

Conciliation service Acas defines sexual harassment as:

“Any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”

A person’s conduct will be considered as sexual harassment if the victim believes they have been harassed.

Sexual harassment can be committed by, and against, both men and women; and people can be harassed by someone of the same gender, or of the opposite gender.

When at work, you need to understand that your colleagues are not always your best friends. What may be passed off as banter amongst friends may be viewed entirely differently by someone who is merely your co-worker. Whilst you may be able to get away with a consoling hug if the other person is a friend, again at work that sort of gesture may be considered very differently.

Examples of sexual harassment could include:

  • INAPPROPRIATE WRITTEN OR VERBAL COMMENTS, SUCH AS THOSE CONCERNING A PERSON’S APPEARANCE, BODY OR CLOTHING
  • STARING AT A PERSON’S BODY
  • ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT A PERSON’S SEX LIFE
  • DISPLAYING EXPLICIT IMAGES
  • SENDING EMAILS CONTAINING EXPLICIT CONTENT
  • INAPPROPRIATE TOUCHING AND OTHER PHYSICAL CONTACT
  • REQUESTS FOR SEXUAL FAVOURS, WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT BE RELATED TO A PERSON’S CONDITIONS OF EMPLOYMENT
  • SEXUAL ASSAULTS

If you believe you have been a victim of sexual harassment at work, and you don’t feel that the matter can be resolved by simply telling the person to stop their inappropriate conduct, then you may need to make use of your company’s formal grievance procedure. It may help to make notes of the alleged incident, and to see if anyone who witnessed the matter is prepared to speak on your behalf.

At a grievance meeting with your employer, you have a legal right to be accompanied by either a colleague or a trade union representative.

If you are not satisfied with how your company handles a formal grievance, the you can take the issue to an employment tribunal.

Some of the most serious examples of harassment, such as sexual assaults, are quite simply criminal offences. In these circumstances, it may be appropriate to contact the police – call 999 in an emergency, or call 101 in other circumstances.