Guest Blog by Martha McKinley
Accusations of sexism and harassment by female employees of Just Eat last month have intensified focus on workplace culture after a year in which scandals in Hollywood and Westminster have also received high-profile attention in the media.
Over the course of the last year, many women – and men – have spoken out about their experiences. What has made these allegations particularly worrying is that a consistent theme has been people using their positions of power within an organisation to take advantage of more junior staff, with accusers often fearful about speaking up as it may harm their careers.
According to a leading employment lawyer though, steps can be taken to ensure that any offending behaviour stops without damaging prospects at work.
“Encountering unprofessional, inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment in the workplace can be particularly damaging”, said Martha McKinley, associate solicitor at the national law firm Stephensons.
“While the behaviour itself can be incredibly humiliating and embarrassing, there can be additional stress when the perpetrator is in a more senior position.
“This is because the desire to speak out can be outweighed by fear of not being believed or suffering reprisals, which, in turn, can breed a culture of silence which only serves to allow the perpetrator to continue their unacceptable behaviour.”
What does the law say?
The law regarding sexual harassment is governed by Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010, which sets out the legislation relating to harassment in general.
Under the act, a person (A) harasses another (B) if:
1) A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and
2) The conduct has the purpose or effect of—
(i) Violating B’s dignity, or
(ii) Creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment
Martha explains: “In order for harassment to be classed as sexual harassment, the conduct must relate to – or be a result of – the victim’s gender.
“If this sounds vague, it is because it is. The provision for sexual harassment is wide-ranging and intended to encompass a spectrum of behaviour, whether it is indecent or suggestive remarks or inappropriate physical contact.
“Furthermore, sexual harassment also applies to behaviour conducted by email, telephone and other communication methods. The action doesn’t have to be done in person.”
How widespread is the problem?
“These issues are, worriedly, still far too widespread”, says Martha.
“A survey conducted in 2016 by The TUC and the Everyday Sexism project reported that 52 per cent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, while nearly a quarter had been touched without invitation and a fifth had experienced a sexual advance.
“As we have seen in the last year, sexual harassment is being encountered in all walks of life and across a wide range of employment sectors.”
What can be done about it?
Martha emphasises those who have encountered or continue to encounter sexual harassment should know it is unacceptable and the law is there to stop such conduct now and in the future.
He points out though; “this does require some gathering of evidence.”
“Keep a detailed account of when, where and how the instances of sexual harassment took place. Keep notes of who was involved, who else was there or saw it happen too; anything that would be considered relevant to establishing your case.
“You should also clearly rebuke any inappropriate behaviour. As hard as it may seem, saying ‘no’ and telling the person their behaviour is inappropriate can make a big difference, particularly if it is in front of your colleagues.
“If the behaviour does continue, taking a strong stance on the matter demonstrates there was no room for misinterpretation or that the individual was unaware their actions made you uncomfortable.”
Martha explains the next step would then be to follow the company’s formal grievance procedure. This will most likely involve putting your complaint in writing, meaning the employer is obliged to investigate and provide a formal response detailing what actions it will take.
“Sadly, some employers are better at dealing with these matters than others, and if the employee doesn’t think their employer is taking the matter seriously, they may wish to take legal action.”
Can I take my employer to court?
If an employee feels they have been subjected to sexual harassment, it is important to remember there are strict time limits to bring a claim to court or a tribunal.
“To bring a claim to employment tribunal regarding harassment in the workplace, you must start the ACAS Early Conciliation process within three months, less one day, of the discriminatory act”, explains Martha.
“Time is of the essence and it is important for the victim to seek legal advice quickly in order to give themselves the best chance of reaching a satisfactory conclusion through the courts.”