Sexual harassment in the workplace

HE is the brains behind some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, but Harvey Weinstein stands accused of a catalogue of claims of sexual harassment against actresses and female employees spanning the last two decades.

A renowned film producer, Weinstein allegedly used his position of authority and power to sexually harass women. This prompted the #metoo movement to encourage women to speak out and expose inappropriate behaviour.

It is clear that sexual harassment in the workplace is very much still an issue. Two in five women in the UK say they have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work but only a quarter reported it, a recent BBC survey has found. The issue does not only impact women with 18 per cent of men stating that they too have been harassed at work.

So what actually is sexual harassment? Is it physical or verbal? The answer is both.

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that:

• violates your dignity

• makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated

• creates a hostile or offensive environment

Harassment can be subtle and you don’t have to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be unwanted. Even if the person didn’t mean for it to be perceived that way, it can still very much be classed as harassment.

We frequently get calls from practices about ‘banter’ in the workplace. After all, it is just a bit of harmless fun isn’t it? What one person may deem as simply banter might be perceived by another as sexually inappropriate.

In the case of Austin v Samuel Grant (North East ) Ltd, a heterosexual male employee won a claim on the basis of sexual orientation and religion or belief harassment. The employee was referred to as “homosexual” and “gay” by colleagues because he had told them that he didn’t like football. He filed a grievance and the HR director rejected it on the basis that the remarks were simply “office banter”.

In Furlong v BMC Software Ltd, a tribunal upheld an employee’s claim that she was subjected to sex discrimination and sexual harassment, including an incident where a senior manager groped her bottom and told her “he would like to eat her like a marshmallow”. As well as upholding the employee’s claim, the tribunal made recommendations to the employer to review their equal opportunities policy and training to management.

Harassment of a sexual nature is one of the most common forms of harassment and is specifically outlawed by the Equality Act 2010.

Employers can prevent or address this in the workplace by having an up-to-date and relevant policy that you may wish to display in the workplace. It should include:

• a statement of commitment from senior management

• a clear statement that bullying and harassment is unlawful and will not be tolerated

• examples of unacceptable behaviour

• a statement that bullying and harassment may be treated as disciplinary offences

• reference to confidential routes for complaints

• protection from victimisation

• how the policy is to be implemented, reviewed and monitored

The important thing is to ensure that employees are aware of the channels that are available to raise concerns and that they feel supported in doing so.

This is a sensitive and complex area of employee relations and if you need any support or advice please contact our employment law advisers on advice@mddus.com or on 0333 043 4444.