Sexual Harassment in the Workplace #MeToo

By Sarah Prasad

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The snowballing nature of the #MeToo social media campaign highlights that our places of work have a long, long way to go to make any significant progress in this area.

In the wake of the Weinstein allegations, like many others, I felt sad and angry that so many people felt they had to keep their experience quiet. However, the balance of power was skewed, making it extremely different for the women in this case to speak out and no doubt added to their feelings of frustration, shame and helplessness.

Surely there are no if’s, but’s or excuses here. Behaviour of a sexual nature that makes another person, male or female, feel uncomfortable, intimated or threatened is NOT OK. Full stop. Within an employment context, harassment of any kind is illegal and a fundamental breach of the trust between an employee and employer.

In this blog we explore some practical steps you can take if you are being sexually harassed at work and also the steps that an employer should take if an allegation of sexual harassment has been made.

What should I do if I’m being sexually harassed at work?

  1. If you feel able, let the individual know that their behaviour is unacceptable. If the harasser is your manager this may be particularly difficult, so an email rather than face to face conversation may be better.
  1. As soon as possible after the event, make a note of the date, time and exactly what happened/what was said, along with any witnesses. This may be the last thing you want to do but if you end up raising a grievance or taking legal action, having a detailed account, written at the time, will be very useful.
  1. Speak to those you trust and ask for support. Others may have seen or experienced something similar regarding the individual.
  1. If the individual does not stop their behaviour immediately, speak to HR, your manager or a senior manager. Your employer’s grievance procedure will set out the steps you need to take to submit a grievance.
  1. Other than the harassment to stop, think about what outcome you would like. (e.g. the harasser to be moved, to be disciplined, to admit and apologise). Working in an environment where you feel intimidated or harassed can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing.
  1. If your employer fails to adequately investigate your complaint and/or you are unsatisfied with the outcome, then you have the right to make a claim to an employment tribunal. In this situation it is advisable you seek legal advice.

How should employers manage a sexual harassment complaint?

  1. Remember: it is the effect of the behaviour on the recipient that matters and not how it appears to you and/or the alleged harasser.
  1. If you have an HR department, speak to them immediately, if not, refer to your harassment policy and grievance policy/procedure.
  1. Your policy may suggest handling complaints ‘informally’ at first. Whilst this is fine, if informal attempts have failed or if the allegations are so serious that they merit formal proceedings then you will need to follow a ‘formal’ grievance process.
  1. Always deal with complaints, whether on an informal or formal basis, promptly and confidentially. Dismissing complaints as just a ‘personality clash’ or ‘not being able to take a joke’ is unacceptable.  Where practicable, the identity of all those involved should not be revealed to anyone else.
  1. Investigate the complaint fully and fairly. Whilst you will need to be supportive to the individual who makes a complaint, you will need to treat the alleged harasser fairly too.
  1. If it is no longer possible for the complainant and alleged harasser to work together you may need to suspend both on full pay for the period of the investigation. Unless the complainant specifically asks to be moved you should never suspend just them or pressure them to move role/team.
  1. Keep written notes of all meetings and once the investigation is complete, ensure a report detailing the facts and findings is given to both parties at the same time.
  1. Action: depending on the outcome of the investigation, you will need to decide whether or not disciplinary action should be taken against the harasser. Additionally you may also want to provide training and/or counselling to all parties involved, especially if there is to be any kind of reintegration into the workplace following the investigation.

Ultimately the culture of an organisation will help to create an environment where the norm is to show respect to everyone. We can all play a part by calling out and challenging inappropriate behaviour when we see it. If the individual was your friend, your mother, your brother, or your child, you’d want someone to speak up and support them wouldn’t you?

So be a ‘Sam Carter’ and stand up for one another’s dignity.

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