Sexually Harassed At Work? What Can You Do?

Thursday 29 September 2016 by

At AP Group we are focussed on creating awareness about some of the common issues at workplace that often get brushed under the carpet. In this article we're throwing light on sexual harassment - any unwelcome sexual advances, both physical and verbal, which interferes with job performance, or creates an intimidating work environment.

A recent survey conducted in the UK revealed some alarming figures related to sexual harassment at work.  

More than half of the women said that they have been subjected to "unwelcome jokes" and/or "unwanted touching" at work, a research by the TUC suggested. What's worse is the fact that most of the incidents were not even reported - victims were afraid of losing their jobs, or of facing social ridicule. Many incidents may appear minor with victims not even realising that they are being harassed, or its part of the workplace culture where slight offences have become a norm.  

If we have a look at the worldwide figures, they reveal a far grimmer picture. One out of three American women has been sexually harassed at work. Although more than 75 countries have enacted legislation prohibiting it, sexual harassment remains a highly pervasive and challenging problem to deal with.

The UK Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as "unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them".

"Sexual harassment constitutes any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature. It's not about fun or friendship but about the abuse of power," explains Lyndsay Ray, Head of HR, AP Group.

It is worth pointing out here that sexual harassment is not exclusive to women but also affects men. 40% of the complaints to the Equal Opportunities helpline in the UK regarding sexual harassment are by men.

Nevertheless, the sexual harassment rate for women is higher than men in every industry. The situation is particularly bad in male-dominated industries such as finance, banking, construction or transport services, and for men, in female-dominated industries like fashion or education.

Here're some examples of sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Making unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances such as touching, hugging or kissing
  • Displaying obscene sexual images or pornography in the workplace
  • Asking for sexual favours
  • Whistling, patting, pinching, caressing or brushing against someone in a sexual way
  • Commenting on appearance, clothing, or body parts
  • Sexual assault, or rape

"Whilst there is no strict definition as to what behaviours constitutes sexual harassment, the Sex Discrimination Act UK gives you the legal right to file a complaint against the perpetrator, and it is also unlawful to treat women (or men) less favourably because of their sex," Lyndsay stresses.

It is not difficult to understand why sexual harassment has taken an endemic proportion - a pervasive culture of acceptance creates a sense of fear of being branded humourless, or a spoil sport. Victims are made to believe that they are "on the joke" no matter how intimidating, humiliating or offensive the act is. 

Here the employer has a crucial role to play in addressing the complaints and taking appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. 

"A responsible employer is legally accountable for the behaviour of its workers and must take appropriate disciplinary action when needed," says Lyndsay. 

"At AP Group, we have policies in place, accessible by all, which clearly outline the process to follow should any of its employees become a victim of sexual harassment.  Our HR department will be able to offer support and advise the employee on the best course of action - even if the employee is  powerless to take effective action themselves, it is an important step should they consider taking a legal case at a later stage," she adds. 

When an episode of sexual harassment is brought to light, it becomes the employer's responsibility to conduct a thorough internal investigation, and if needed, enforce its company policies with a stern punishment, which may involve the termination of the alleged harasser.

However, the victim has every right to bypass all the red tape and report the incident directly to the Police for indecent assault. 

Don't forget, the law protects you from wrongful termination or discharge - and that means your employer cannot take any retaliatory measures against you for speaking up against harassment. 

The only way to deal with sexual harassment is to speak out against it - loud and clear. Ignoring or normalising sexual harassment is the worst thing you could do.

So know your rights and make a difference!