Article written by
Anna Crayton, Solicitor in our Employment and dispute resolution team.
Sexual harassment in the workplace – Don’t suffer in silence!
Hollywood film mogul, Harvey Weinstein has been fired by the board of his own company, Miramax, after revelations about his inappropriate sexual behaviour towards past colleagues had created a toxic working environment lasting decades.
This workplace wrongdoing, together with allegations of sexual assault and even rape by a roster of high-profile women in the entertainment business was uncovered by The New York Times who after years of being gagged finally published an article uncovering the alleged incidents of harassment (“Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers For Decades” – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html)
In the wake of the scandal, accusations against the high profile film producer continue to gather pace and more women are stepping forward to speak up about their experience.
It has been reported that Weinstein reached private settlements with at least eight women, some of whom were his colleagues, in relation to complaints about incidents of his sexual misconduct.
Having learnt of the news, Barack Obama commented “… I have been disgusted by the recent reports of Harvey Weinstein. Any man who demeans and degrades women in such fashion needs to be condemned and held accountable, regardless of wealth or status. We should celebrate the courage of women who have come forward to tell these painful stories. And we all need to build a culture, including by empowering our girls and teaching our boys decency and respect, so we can make such behavior less prevalent in the future.”
The stories that have unfolded have brought the global issue of sexual harassment at work to the fore.
What kind of behaviour constitutes sexual harassment at work?
Sexual harassment does not always have to be as blatant as requests for sexual favours or unwanted advances. Put simply, it is any behaviour of a sexual nature (no matter how subtle or discreet) that is unwelcomed.
The harassment can be verbal or non-verbal and may make one feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or uncomfortable.
One need not to object to a person’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.
In the UK, The Equality Act 2010 provides a clear definition. It can include:
- Sexual comments or jokes – in person or via email
- Inappropriate touching
- Unwelcome sexual advances or other forms of sexual assault
- Staring in a sexually suggestive manner or wolf whistling
- Displaying images of a sexual nature i.e. a picture that you find offensive
- Being treated less favourably as a result of rejecting any such conduct
What action can one take if one is being sexually harassed?
If you feel able to, tell the offender that his or her behaviour is making you feel uncomfortable. This could be enough to make them desist.
If this approach fails you should immediately inform your line manager. It is advisable to record this in writing and keep a copy for your own records. Documenting or keeping a diary of the incident i.e. when it happens and who witnessed it and the reporting of the same to your manager is important in case you are treated unfavourably in the future.
If you feel there is unnecessary delay in action being taken to protect you, you can make a formal complaint or “grievance” to your manager or Human Resources department. All employers are required to have a grievance procedure and some may even have a specific bullying and harassment policy. You will need to set out in writing the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” of the harassment and how it made you feel and send this to the appointed contact named in the grievance procedure so that the appropriate person can escalate matters on your behalf.
If matters cannot be resolved using this procedure or you feel the outcome is unsatisfactory, you can make a claim to an employment tribunal.
What happens if you decide to make a claim?
Before you can make a claim to an employment tribunal you are required to go through an early conciliation process provided by mediation group ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) who may be able to negotiate a settlement or practical solution for you.
However, if this is not possible, you can file a claim to the tribunal online.
- Claims can be made by women or men, including employees, apprentices and job applicants
- You must bring a claim within three months of the act of harassment (although a time extension may be possible depending on when the early conciliation is commenced)
- You can bring a claim against your employer and the perpetrator simultaneously
- A witness statement detailing the harassment will be required, but you will not be expected to read this out
- A tribunal judge will consider whether a “reasonable” person would have been offended by the behaviour
- There no longer any employment tribunal fees, so you only pay for any legal representation you choose to have
If you feel that you are being subjected to sexual harassment it is important to seek legal advice as early as possible even if you are not sure you have or want to pursue a claim. It can be a tricky situation to navigate on your own and time is of the essence as the limitation period of three months is generally strictly followed.
Stand up, not stand by
In a statement released in response to last week’s New York Times investigation, Mr Weinstein noted that he had come of age in a “different culture” when rules about behaviour in the workplace “were different.” This so-called excuse falls so far short of the mark and highlights the infuriating and outdated views of much of the “old-school” generation that is still seeping into today’s world.
It is not acceptable to blame an era or to use nostalgia as an excuse; sexual harassment has no place in the working environment. It never has and it never will, it is simply wrong.
There is no job or position of power or creativity in the world that can ever override the obligation that we all have to respect each other’s basic human rights.
England and Wales have strong laws in place to protect victims of sexual harassment and therefore one should not be afraid to take action and/or seek advice if one has experienced any form of sexual harassment. The aggrieved is absolutely entitled to an appropriate remedy.
Help and advice
If you would like to talk to one of our employment law specialists about preventing or tackling sexual harassment please contact Anna Crayton, a solicitor in our Employment Law department:
T: 020 7408 8888