The topic of sexual harassment at work recently hit the headlines after the allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey.

The publication of some dramatic statistics suggests that sexual harassment at work is a subject that hasn’t been addressed in depth.

Half of women in the UK have been victims of sexual harassment at work. However, this problem does not only concern women, as one in five men has experienced sexual harassment at his workplace. How can such a worldwide problem not have been seriously addressed before? A possible explanation to this lack of attention resides in the fact that the number of victims who report sexual harassment at work is very low. A research conducted in 2016 showed that victims do not report sexual harassment at work by fear of embarrassment (20%), or that they would not be taken seriously (24%),) and finally, that reporting it would affect their relationships at work (28%).

The Equality Act 2010 offers protection to employees and independent contractors. Sexual harassment is when “A engages in unwanted conduct […] and the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating B’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B“.

Sexual harassment can be verbal and/or physical. Inappropriate comments or touching, sexually explicit jokes by email or persistent requests for dates are examples of sexual harassment. Additionally, unwanted conduct related to the employee’s gender, such as criticising an employee’s childcare arrangement, is also considered to be sexual harassment. Finally, an employee is victim of sexual harassment if he/she is treated less favourably after refusing sexual advances or being victim of them.

Several actions can be taken to rectify the situation. The first step is to inform a person in a position of authority by making a note in writing.

The employer should then invite the employee to a grievance meeting and provide an outcome within  a reasonable time.

A claim would have to be started within three months after the incident. Finally, it is crucial to gather evidence by writing down the times and dates during which the inappropriate behaviour took place, along with finding colleagues who have witnessed it.

An employer can be held liable for the actions of an employee, including sexual harassment. In order to prevent this, the employer can show that it took reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment. This is done by having an anti-harassment policy, undertaking equal opportunity training and showing no tolerance when disciplining harassers.

Sexual harassment can render the working environment intolerable and these claims should always be treated very seriously. The law protecting victims of sexual harassment exists, however statistics have shown that denouncing sexual harassment can be difficult, especially when one’s job is at stake. Following the recent Hollywood allegations , women have started sharing their experiences and a real debate concerning sexual harassment at work has been started.

Hopefully, the current controversy will encourage both male and female employees to speak out and exercise their legal rights when sexual harassment occurs.

By Lily Wilde

Image used under CC courtesy of Dollen