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Sexual harassment at work


Sexual harassment at work has been hitting the headlines again following the launch of a free helpline for women by actor and Time’s Up UK supporter Emma Watson.

The Harry Potter star and activist is fronting a new initiative which provides advice to female employees on their legal rights and what to do next if they’ve been sexually harassed.

According to TUC research, one in two women say they have experienced unwanted sexual advances at work, so it’s clearly an issue that’s still rife in a lot of UK workplaces.

While the new advice line, backed by Time’s UP UK’s justice and equality fund, is indeed a useful resource, there is a lot that you, as an employer, can do to support staff – male and female – who experience sexual harassment.

For starters you should have a policy in place which states that sexual harassment in any form will not be tolerated in your company.

It should make clear that these rules apply to every single person in your organisation, regardless of their status, seniority level, gender or sexual orientation. All employees should be made aware of this policy and know how to report any incidents.

It’s important to recognise that some staff don’t know what constitutes unwanted sexual attention so it’s worth spelling it out. What one employee might see as “harmless playful banter” can be interpreted as humiliating, degrading and intimidating by the person or people on the receiving end.

It’s all about how a comment or an action makes a person feel. Flirtatious behaviour might appear quite innocent to some, but if it makes someone feel uncomfortable or unsafe, then it is not acceptable.

Sexual harassment covers everything from telling offensive jokes, quizzing someone about their sex life or commenting on their appearance through to showing obscene images, unwanted physical contact and sexual assault.

The whole area of unwanted sexual conduct at work is highly sensitive and often people are reluctant to report it. Junior employees might fear they won’t be taken seriously, especially if the perpetrator is senior to them, while managers might worry that making a claim could harm their promotion chances.  A good employer will always operate an “open door policy” where staff at all levels can raise their concerns in complete confidence.

All sexual harassment allegations must be treated seriously and handled with the utmost sensitivity and discretion.  Allow the employee making the complaint to be accompanied by a colleague or union representative or even a family member or friend and find somewhere quiet and private to talk where you won’t be disturbed.

Often people don’t realise they’ve crossed a line when it comes to appropriate behaviour, so the accused employee will probably be upset and distressed too when they’re made aware of the allegation.  Make sure that they are also offered support while the claim is being investigated.

All employees experiencing sexual harassment, in whatever form it takes, have a right to legal protection via the Equality Act 2010.

Employers can do a lot to prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place by fostering a spirit of mutual respect, tolerance and equality in the workplace. At HR:4UK we can offer training courses on Equal Opportunites, Anti- Harassment and Bullying.

Unfortunately issues can and do arise, so ensure your policies are in place, follow procedure and take advice from HR specialists.

Sexual discrimination claims can be unsettling, contentious, expensive and sometimes difficult to prove, so talk to HR:4UK for guidance and advice 01455 444222