Tackling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The #MeToo campaign saw millions of women, from all parts of the world reporting their own victimisation and mistreatment in the workplace and beyond. Sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon and to anyone who has researched the topic the level of response to the #MeToo campaign is not surprising, but we are now witnessing a cultural shift in the way we think and talk about issues that were once considered either taboo or an inevitable part of employment.

Research from the last four decades has consistently shown that sexual harassment is a widespread problem for women. They are predominantly more likely to be sexually harassed than men, are more likely to recognise sexual harassment and see it as a problem than men, and younger women are most at risk. However, both women and men are victims of sexual harassment at work.

The most commonly recognised form of sexual harassment is a quid-pro-quo one. This is where a person with more institutional (or perceived) power makes demands of a person with relatively less power, in exchange for career-related advancements or with the threat of retaliations. However, research published by the European Commission reveals this represents a small proportion (between 3% to 16%) of sexual harassment experiences. Sexual assault and rape at work represent an even smaller proportion (1% to 6%).

The most commonly experienced form of sexual harassment is gender harassment. This encompasses unwelcome verbal comments, inappropriate and repeated requests for dates, remarks about figure, and unspoken behaviour such as staring, whistling, and suggestive gestures that frequently come from people of equal workplace status and power as the victim (around 55% of reports). These are behaviours that result in a hostile workplace environment and which can have negative consequences for the victim’s well-being, such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. It can also affect victims’ careers over time, leading to absenteeism and loss of opportunities. It can affect others who witness the act and vicariously experience the hostile environment.

The overwhelming response from women (and men) to the #MeToo campaign across social media suggests that this problem is far more widespread than is recognised by published research. It appears that gender harassment is more frequently experienced, but less likely to be recognised as sexual harassment by all. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise it if we are to understand the full extent of sexual harassment in the workplace, the impact it has on those that experience it and how to combat it.

Psychological research suggests that men and women who experience sexual harassment are likely to use a variety of coping methods to deal with it, depending on the context and the severity of the behaviour. Coping mechanisms span from denial and avoidance of the perpetrator, to talking to friends, relatives and colleagues, to direct confrontation and formal reporting.

Although avoidance is frequently adopted, it is far less likely to be successful than direct confrontation in stopping harassment, but because of the fear and the risks of retaliation when confronting a harasser, it is far less likely to be chosen as a response. The same goes for formal reporting.

In fact, research shows that the climate of an organisation and its tolerance are the strongest predictors of sexual harassment. How permissive the organisational climate is determines how risky a complaint appears to the victim, how likely the harasser is to be punished, and how seriously an employee’s complaint will be taken by the organisation and their colleagues.

Harassment may be easy for one person to recognise but it may take someone else longer to realise and react against and this is what makes these behaviours so insidious. Some people may find certain things tolerable, but others will not. People need to feel secure in speaking up against behaviour that often starts as innocuous. This includes being able to say you don’t find something funny, to being able to say that you don’t appreciate being left out, or made to stand out, or asked to do things you don’t want to do. Most importantly, an employee needs to feel supported by their employer in their decision to speak up and secure against potential retaliations.

The lines are sometimes blurry, making it a difficult subject to tackle so let’s be clear: harassment is when someone behaves in a way which offends you or makes you feel distressed or intimidated. This could be abusive comments or jokes, graffiti or insulting gestures. Harassment based on sex is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 and if an employer does nothing to prevent it, it could be the basis of a claim to the Employment Tribunal.

We have an obligation to make workplaces safe environments that will foster dignity and acceptance. The right to work with dignity is a human right. Existing employee harassment training and independent tribunals are essential in the fight against sexual harassment, but the organisational culture we are part of is equally crucial. We need to respect and listen to one another. Campaigns like #MeToo provide a licence for victims to speak out against sexism and sexual violence, but also an opportunity to listen, learn and be an ally to all people affected by this phenomenon as it is a lot closer to home (and work) than we think.

Fitchett & Co, Employment Law Specialists, are able to offer legal advice and support to employers and employees who have been affected by any of these issues. Call 01483 243 587.