The “Me Too” movement, which focuses on the experiences of victims of sexual harassment, became prominent in late 2017 when multiple high-profile actresses opened up about their experiences with sexual harassment in the film industry.

Since then, we have found an increased number of employees instructing us to provide advice to them when subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. The increased media attention has encouraged people to stand up against such behaviour and has given people a greater understanding of their rights.

The Equality Act 2010 prevents three types of harassment:

  • Harassment due to a protected characteristic which includes sex, age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation

  • Sexual harassment

  • Less favourable treatment because the person rejects or submits to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or that is related to gender reassignment or sex

The definition of sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010 occurs where:

  • A engages in conduct of a sexual nature

  • The conduct has the purpose or effect of either violating B’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.

The EHRC guidance provides examples of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature including:

  • Sexual comments or jokes

  • Displaying sexually graphic pictures, photos or posters

  • Suggestive looks, staring or leering

  • Propositions and sexual advances

  • Making promises in return for sexual favours

  • Sexual gestures

  • Intrusive questions about a person’s private or sex life and discussing their own sex life

  • Spreading sexual rumours about a person

  • Sending sexually explicit emails or text messages

  • Unwelcome touching, hugging, massaging or kissing

  • Criminal behaviour including sexual assault, stalking, indecent exposure and offensive communications.

Raising an allegation of sexual harassment against someone you work with every day can be terrifying. This is why the “Me Too” movement took so long to happen. You may worry that your job may be at risk as a result of the matters you raise and the effect that it may have on your private life. You might feel that you will be judged by colleagues for “allowing” the harassment to happen. However, raising your complaint formally might be the only way to deal with the issue and stop it continuing.

It is in your employer’s commercial interests to deal with the complaint you raise and they should be encouraging staff to report any incidents of discrimination whenever it occurs.  Ultimately, discrimination in the workplace is bad for business. It does not promote an engaged or productive workforce and it is dangerous for a business to allow harassment to go unchallenged.  Other people may have been subjected to harassment by the same person and the situation could result in discrimination claims being brought against the company and/or the loss of valuable members of staff.

If you decide to raise a complaint, your employer should talk to you in a sensitive way and reassure you that your complaint will be taken seriously and that details will remain confidential and only be disclosed to those necessary for the purpose of conducting a thorough investigation.

You should ask your employer to describe how the grievance process will work including the timescale so that you know what to expect. You should ask your employer for a copy of their written grievance procedure.

You might want to consider what you would like as an outcome depending on the nature of your complaint. The following options could be considered:

  • A formal disciplinary process against the harasser depending on the nature of the complaint. Following the conclusion of the investigation, the employer will have to decide whether to commence a formal disciplinary process. The outcome will depend upon whether findings are made against the individual and the sanction will depend upon the seriousness of the misconduct. Sanctions could include dismissal, demotion, first written warning, final written warning and no further action.

  • An apology from the harasser

  • Mediation or a meeting to clear the air following the investigation in the event that you are to continue working with the person going forward

  • Consideration could be given to move the harasser or yourself to another department so that you do not need to work with that person going forward if the relationship has broken down

  • Introduction of measures by the employer to promote a positive working environment without discrimination. For example, staff training, creating a workplace culture of zero-tolerance to harassment where all employees are encouraged to report inappropriate behaviour, having effective reporting mechanisms in place, investigating the extent of the problem in the business and identifying areas of risk.

If matters are not resolved to your satisfaction and you feel unable to continue in employment due to the treatment you have been subjected to, one option is to speak on a without prejudice (off the record) basis with your employer to see if terms regarding your exit from the business could be agreed. Terms might include a date your employment will end, payment in lieu of notice, payment for accrued but untaken holiday, a compensation payment for the loss of your employment and treatment you have been subjected to and agreeing the wording of a suitable reference to assist you in securing new employment. If terms are agreed, you might be asked to sign a settlement agreement agreeing not to bring certain claims against your employer including discrimination.

Alternatively, you could consider bringing a discrimination claim against your employer in the Employment Tribunal. It is important to note that there are strict time limits to bring discrimination claims.

For more information and advice about raising a complaint or pursuing a claim for sexual harassment at work, speak to Farleys’ experienced employment law team. Call 0845 287 0939 or submit your enquiry online.