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Stamp Out Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been the talking point of 2017, with many actors and actresses breaking silence to denounce influential people in their industry, such as Harvey Weinstein. The BBC commissioned the ComRes survey of 6,206 adults, which found that four out of ten women and approximately two out of ten men, have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual behaviour at work. 

Sexual harassment is defined as ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose of violating the dignity of a worker, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.’ This covers individuals treated less favourably because they rejected or submitted to unwanted sexual conduct.

In the UK, we have seen the rise of the gig economy, freelancing and zero hours contracts, where those hiring do not even have to provide regular work. The ComRes poll suggests that those who work flexibly are more likely to encounter this type of behaviour – 43% had experienced some sort of sexual harassment at work. Employees were 29% less likely to suffer unwelcome sexual behaviour in comparison.

This rise in harassment is clearly linked to power in the workplace. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, recently detailed some of her own experiences of unwanted sexual advances and noted that it was no coincidence that those responsible had more power than her. She said ‘It’s why they felt free to cross the line’.

Power also translates itself in terms of ‘protected characteristics’. For example, we acted for a young black man who was harassed by older white women subjecting him to humiliating ‘banter’ about the size of his penis, based on his ethnic origin. We also acted for a young man, harassed because of his sexual orientation, his employer publicly referring to him as ‘Gay Boy 1’.

It is important that employers encourage employees and workers to come forward, whilst discouraging this type of behavior. It is crucial that complaints about sexual harassment are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. This is important not only for the complainant, but also for the alleged perpetrator. In many cases, there are no witnesses and it is one person’s word against another, so investigations must be handled expeditiously and sensitively.

Speaking out about sexual harassment is difficult with much at stake for the complainant, including reputation, career prospects and the fear of dismissal.

Workplaces need robust equality and diversity and bullying and harassment policies, whilst ensuring that their HR team and managers undergo training in these areas so that all employees, including the people at the top, know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.

Social media campaigns such as #MeToo have gone viral because this type of abuse has been ignored and covered up, despite its prevalence. Sheryl Sandberg is positive about this trend, saying ‘For the first time in my professional life, it feels like people are finally prepared to hold perpetrators responsible.’

Employment lawyers are aware that sexual harassment in the workplace has been hidden. But now that high profile men and women have felt able to speak out, we hope that this will encourage other victims of sexual harassment to step forward.

The Equality Act has always provided a framework for employees and workers to take action, but this new-found openness, together with the recent Supreme Court ruling scrapping Tribunal fees means that those encountering sexual harassment are not only more likely to speak out, they can also afford to take action.

If you require advice about ensuring equality in your workplace, or your right to take action against sexual harassment, please contact our specialist Employment Law team today on 01273 609911, or at

About the author

Fiona Martin


I lead the employment teams in our solicitors’ offices in Brighton, Eastbourne, Shoreham, Gatwick & Crawley and Croydon. As founding Director, I am also responsible for the firm’s marketing. I provide expert opinion for the press, disseminate employment law round-ups through my employment law blog and campaign on important issues such as maternity and disability discrimination. I train employers and HR professionals to be best practice managers and I am also a CEDR accredited mediator.

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