Blog: Sexual Harassment in the workplace is not going away

Sexual harassment anywhere is not going away at all.

A recent report published by Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee on harassment in public places concluded ‘Sexual harassment pervades the lives of women and girls and is deeply ingrained in our culture’.  Another recent survey found that a third of women had been sexually harassed at work in the last 12 months.  This came in the same few days as Dame Laura Cox’s report into the Bullying & Harassment of House of Commons staff which, as you may have heard, disclosed some eye watering behaviours which one would have hoped would be obsolete by 2018.

Worryingly (but not that much of a surprise to me as an employment lawyer) the Women and Equalities Committee report also made clear that bosses across the country are still failing to take workplace sexual harassment issues seriously.

So it may be 2018 and post-#MeToo, but sexual harassment in the workplace appears not to be going away – yet.  I’ll be discussing this topic and the consequences for employers at Menzies Law’s Employment Law seminar on 15 November.

What and why?

The most commonly reported behaviours in the Committee’s report are not necessarily the most obvious.  Only a minority of complainants reported overtly sexual physical contact.  More common nowadays are the more insidious forms of harassment made possible by social media and smartphones, such as messages that become overly personal (think emojis 😍, GIF’s and photos) and comments about someone’s appearance dressed up as ‘compliments’.

This is possibly why bosses don’t take complaints involving these sorts of behaviour seriously:  because these more insidious actions are not interpreted by management as ‘serious’.  Yet they can still constitute sexual harassment and should be dealt with as robustly as physical contact.

In my experience of managing sexual harassment claims, a toxic workplace culture that allows harassment to take place may be difficult for individuals to challenge and to change. But change it must.

The risk of complaining

Dame Laura Cox’s report talked about a “culture of fear”, leaving employees feeling they would be disbelieved, isolated, branded a troublemaker and ultimately losing their job if they complained.  And certainly at Menzies Law we’ve seen employees who are reluctant to raise complaints because they do not feel they will be understood or that will lead to any change.  It is not just improved staff policies that are required, but empathetic managers, trained to deal with sensitive complaints.

Employers beware

The legal consequences for an employer of being taken to an Employment Tribunal are serious, with considerable legal costs and compensation payments as starters.  We have dealt with cases where an individual has been so badly harassed that it has had a major impact on their mental health. In serious cases, employers can face potentially unlimited losses and additional awards for ‘injury to feelings’ and personal injury too.  In all cases, there is a potentially huge reputational risk for the employer.  Employers want to be seen as good places to work.  The #MeToo movement will call out employers facing down employees with harassment claims in tribunals.

At Menzies Law we anticipate we will see more women feeling able to raise complaints and being supported in seeking a fair outcome. In fact, our work with both employers and employees reflects this rise.  Many complaints could be dealt with at an early stage, particularly through better training and mediation.

Advised action

What should you do as an employer if you receive a complaint of sexual harassment?  Our top tips are:

  • Take it seriously
  • Preserve evidence, including that on electronic devices
  • Listen
  • Acknowledge the feelings of the individual
  • Don’t be defensive: acknowledge wrong-doing when this has happened. This can be very impactful for the individual
  • Offer support to the individual – paying for counselling can be helpful.
  • Seek to resolve at an early stage
  • Learn lessons

We can help

If you feel an individual’s sexual harassment complaint is ‘going legal’, get legal advice quickly.  We’re very experienced at managing such claims promptly and pragmatically, avoiding an Employment Tribunal claim wherever possible and sparing you the costs and reputational damage involved.

We’re also skilled at training your managers.  We regularly run both workshops and one-to-one training for managers and executives on sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.

If your organisation could benefit from such training, please get in touch with us and we’d be delighted to tell you more about how we can help.

Tamsin James
Senior Solicitor

 or call 0117 325 0926