Beware the pitfalls of workplace harassment

Victims of sexual harassment at work have been silenced by “corrosive” cultures while their abusers’ behaviour is “normalised”, a new report claims.

In an attempt to better protect victims, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has called on the government to introduce legislation stopping employers ignoring complaints to protect their reputation.

The commission said firms should not use non-disclosure agreements to sweep sexual harassment under the carpet and there should be a new legal duty on employers to prevent harassment or victimisation, as well as more protection for victims and training for management on tackling problems.

Mark Serby, employment solicitor at Wake Smith Solicitors, looks at workplace harassment.

“Sexual harassment is harassing someone based on his or her sex. This could include unwanted sexual advances, requesting sexual favours, or any harassment of a sexual nature, be it physical or verbal.

“It is important to note that offhand comments here and there, while they may not be welcome, can be legal, though certainly improper.

“What is not legal, however, is when these comments become so frequent that they create a hostile or offensive work environment or when an adverse employment decision is made based on the harassment.

“What we see with clients in this situation is how a lack of action by employers can lead to the destruction of both people’s careers and their mental and physical health.

“This report highlights some shocking truths behind companies and individuals and how a host of organisations are silencing employees and not taking any action making it the norm in many workplaces and certainly not a reportable offence.

“It highlights that urgent action is needed to turn the tables in British workplaces, shifting from the current culture of people risking their jobs and health in order to report harassment, to placing the onus on employers to prevent and resolve it.

“No-one should face humiliation, intimidation or harassment at work. Sadly this report highlights that it is an all too common experience and that far too many employers are turning a blind eye or even silencing victims of harassment.”

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination and falls under the Equality Act 2010. The law says it is considered sexual harassment if the behaviour is either meant to, or has the effect of violating your dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Sexual harassment can include:

- sexual comments or jokes
- physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault
  displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature
- sending emails with a sexual content

Mark says there are certain procedures you can follow if you are being sexually harassed by someone you work with. You should:

- Tell your manager - put it in writing and keep a copy of the letter or email
- Talk to your HR team or union – they will be able to give you advice
- Collect evidence - keep a diary recording all of the times you have been harassed
- Tell the police if you think you are the victim of a crime - for example, if you have been physically attacked
- If your colleague does not stop harassing you, you can raise a formal grievance (complaint). All employers must have a grievance process - ask your manager or HR team.
- You could make a claim at an employment tribunal if you cannot solve your problem using the grievance procedure.

Mark added: “If you are treated badly or less favourably because of your reaction to sexual harassment, you may have a claim under the Equality Act. The Act says this is also harassment. You are protected if you reject or submit to the harassment.”

Are you dealing with sexual harassment in your workplace or were recently fired or demoted as a result of sexual harassment?

Wake Smith has a wealth of experience in fighting workplace harassment. We will help you stand up for your rights and fight back against illegal discriminatory and harassing practices. For further informaton please contact Mark Serby on 0114 224 2048 or at mark.serby@wake-smith.com

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