In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in October 2017, more and more women have felt confident in sharing their experiences of harassment in the workplace. You must have been hibernating if you haven’t read about, or participated in the “Me Too” or “Time’s Up” movements which have highlighted the prevalence of harassment in the workplace. These movements have shown victims that their experience was not an isolated case, and encouraged them to seek the support available.
It’s a sad fact that many women (and men) in the working world have come up against a certain degree of harassment. I can’t imagine there are many offices without a tolerated letchy type that, rather than be denigrated, is actually talked about with uneasy humour. You know them: you feel uneasy when you’re alone with them, they say inappropriate things in a meeting, and their eyes linger on you (and not just on your face) for just a little too long.
But at what point does the office “pest” become a perpetrator of sexual harassment? And what do we do about it?
What Is Sexual Harassment
Before you think that Stuart in Accounts sexually harassed you because he once touched your shoulder when you nudged past him, it’s probably best to clarify what sexual harassment really means.
Legislation came into place in 2005 which strengthened the law on sexual harassment in the workplace. Since then, sexual harassment has been defined as “any type of unwanted contact of a sexual nature.” So this means physical (unwanted and unnecessary touching, hugging or rape, for example) or verbal harassment (inappropriate comments about your appearance, lewd suggestions, etc).
Fundamentally, if a sexually-charged action could affect a person’s performance in the workplace and could be construed as hostile, intimidating or humiliating, then it can be described as sexual harassment.
Discrimination against an employee because of their gender can also be deemed sexual harassment.
It Happens To Women… And Men
Unfortunately, sexual harassment is something many people will encounter during their working lives. In fact, one in five calls made to the Equal Opportunities helpline is about sexual harassment. What is even more surprising is that 40% of the complainants are male. Sexual harassment doesn’t just affect women.
Focusing on women for the moment, TUC research in 2016 shows more than half of women overall, and nearly two-thirds of women aged 18-24 years old, have experienced sexual harassment at work. A shocking statistic but one that probably only shows the tip of the iceberg.
How Should We Deal With It
Many people don’t come forward about harassment in the workplace, especially if the perpetrator is a powerful figure, because they’ve either become accustomed to being treated in this way, or they’re scared of reprisals (such as losing their job or having their career progression blocked).
If we met someone socially who made us feel uneasy due to their inappropriate behaviour, we’d choose not to spend time with them again. However, most of us don’t have this liberty in the workplace. We are stuck.
So do we stick with it and ignore it, or do we formally report this behaviour?
At work, where you spend a large amount of time in close proximity to colleagues, you need to feel as comfortable as possible; being the subject of any type of harassment should never be tolerated.
What Should You Do
If you’ve been physically assaulted, you should inform the police as a first step. For non-physical workplace harassment, follow the steps below to put an end to it.
1. If you feel comfortable, confront the perpetrator and make them aware that you feel distressed by their behavior. Otherwise, appoint a colleague to do so on your behalf. Perhaps the perpetrator didn’t realise that their behavior offended you so this is their chance to stop.
2. If the harassment continues, notify your line manager – and make a written note of every instance thereafter.
3. Ask your line manager to inform your HR department of the harassment – if you take legal action at a later stage, this is an important step to take. Nowadays most companies have a zero tolerance attitude and regard sexual harassment a serious and disciplinary offence. The HR policy on handling harassment cases will outline the next steps.
4. If you’re not happy with your employer’s handling of your complaint, you can take the matter to an Employment Tribunal which will decide if your employer has treated your complaint appropriately.
If you are, or have been, a victim of workplace harassment, and even if your HR department resolved the situation successfully, it’s likely that you feel tainted by the whole experience. Remember you’re not alone and there are a range of support networks you can reach out to.
Who To Talk To
If you are experiencing any kind of harassment at work, these resources may be useful:
- Bullying and harassment in the workplace – CIPD Factsheet
- Still just a bit of banter? Sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016 – TUC research report
- Tackling sexual harassment in the workplace – A TUC guide for trade union activists
- Bullying and harassment at work – guidance from ACAS
- Sex discrimination – Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
- Sexual harassment – Citizens Advice
- Encouraging a speak up culture – IBE
About the Author
My name is Natalie Blackburn and I’m a busy 36 year-old mum of two under five. I am from, and still live, in the vibrant city of Manchester. Since entering into my thirties and becoming a parent, I developed an interest in good financial planning, and coupled with my passion for writing, I have lovingly created the blog that you read on Sophisticated Savers.
Other interests of mine include reading (autobiographies are a particular favourite) and running (but only if I am pushed to, so I wouldn’t really call it an interest, but just wanted to sound as though I was quite fit!) and yoga (that is a real interest!). Wine and chocolate are also my real interests, and the occasional travel when I have the time.