Sexual Harassment in the workplace in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal

The aftermath of the Weinstein scandal has placed the spotlight on sexual harassment reporting yet again.

Often, victims of sexual harassment are hesitant to report such incidents as they fear it will back fire or no-one will believe such an allegation.

It is crucial that businesses have clear guidelines to prevent this from occurring and encouraging employees to come forward in the event that it does.

What is sexual harassment?

The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as: “Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.” Legislation also covers indecent or suggestive remarks, unwanted physical contact, requests or demands for sex and the dissemination of pornography.

Legislation on sexual harassment is often portrayed as vague as it can be hard to tell the difference between a joke and a humiliating remark.

How common is sexual harassment in the workplace?

A report that was constructed in 2016 by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Everyday Sexism submitted that 52% of females had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their place of work, nearly a quarter had been touched without consent and a fifth had encountered a sexual advance.

An earlier study produced by Slater & Gordon in 2013, which polled 1,036 women identified that 60% of females had experienced inappropriate behaviour at work and nearly half of respondents had been informed to expect questionable behaviours from a specific person.

Why are women not reporting it?

The TUC disclosed that 1 in 5 women do report it, with the outcomes being poor. It was reported that 80% said nothing changed and 16% disclosed the situation got worse after it was reported.

It was then made extremely difficult and expensive for employees to report harassment in the workplace when tribunal fees were introduced in 2013, especially workers in low paid jobs. However, these fees were overruled and found to be unlawful by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC stated: “The only reason that was overturned was because Unison had the clout and the money to take that decision to the supreme court. I would say to the government: ‘OK, you should be taking out full-page adverts in women’s magazines and newspapers to tell women what their rights now are.’ Because that decision in 2013 left women with no prospect of exercising their rights.”

“There’s a knowledge of and tolerance of sexual harassment, that makes women’s journeys through public space always a little bit hazardous. I think the people who talk about this stuff as if it’s nothing forget how heartbreakingly sorrowful we feel about that and how ashamed. The other structural conversation to have about this, apart from power, is shame. I am overwhelmed by hearing these women’s stories. Recognising them, their sense of shame, knowing that their entry into the public world is marked for ever by that. I think the politics of humiliation, which is at the centre of all this, has been erased from the discourse. It can’t be underestimated, because you were in that room, he did put his hands on your body. Even if you escaped, the point is that you were there.”

What should employers be doing to prevent this?

(1) Take allegations seriously

Complaints made on the grounds of sexual harassment should be explored immediately and in a professional manner. Employees should not be expected to provide evidence that this has happened. The purpose behind an employer’s investigation should be to gather further evidence on the complaint.

(2) Have an allocated individual who deals with complaints

This will encourage the employee to come forward with any sexual harassment concerns. Often, for employees this is a sensitive and worrying situation to be in, thus, having a named person to approach will put the employee at ease and remove any uncertainty.

This nominated individual should be given the appropriate training on how to address sexual harassment situations. Further, the process for passing on allegations to those who will be investigating should be made clear.

(3) Have workplace policies in place

All employers should have anti-bullying and harassment policies which set out what type of behaviour is unacceptable and the consequences of such behaviour, this should also state the procedure that employees should follow in the event they wish to make a complaint.

How can Employment Law Services (ELS) help?

If you require employment law advice on any of the issues raised in this article, or any other employment issue give us a call today on 0370 218 5662. 

Please note, the information in this article is for guidance purposes only and it is therefore advised that employers seek legal advice before embarking on any enforcement action.