Any unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature can be classed as sexual harassment.
Many people spend a significant part of their lives in the workplace. Sexual relationships between work colleagues are very common, and all the information about sexual health in other sections of this website clearly apply here too. However, it is also common in the workplace, as well as other situations in life, that sexual attention is not always welcomed. In most situations we have the choice to avoid people who make us uncomfortable; but in the workplace this can be very difficult to achieve.
Effect of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is a serious issue. It causes distress and illness. It affects both women and men. It is also unlawful; and employers have a responsibility to prevent and deal with it. Employers should also be aware of the possible damage to the effectiveness and reputation of their business.
Sexual harassment can take many different forms including:
- sexual demands or requests for sexual favours (from members of the same or a different gender),
- indecent remarks or name calling using demeaning words that are gender specific,
- questions about someone’s sex life,
- demeaning comments about someone’s appearance,
- uninvited physical contact, and
- any other behaviour of a sexual nature that could cause someone to feel intimidated or create an environment that is hostile or humiliating.
Nobody should be subjected to sexual harassment of any kind. Everybody has different ideas of what they think is acceptable or unacceptable. Very often, something that doesn’t offend one person might offend somebody else. If somebody complains of sexual harassment it is important that it is not ignored because others accept it. The important issue is that it is unwelcome by the person receiving it.
What to do if you experience Sexual Harassment
If you are experiencing sexual harassment, it is important to remember that it is not your fault. It can be embarrassing and difficult to do something about it, particularly if it has been going on for some time and you have so far put up with it. Many people suffer in silence because they don’t want to complain or be seen to complain. It is sometimes quicker and easier to sort it out personally, but remember, it is your employer’s legal responsibility to tackle any sexual harassment in the workplace.You should be able to meet your manager to raise the issue and discuss how to deal with it. If it is your employer who is harassing you and the situation doesn’t change you might want to get legal advice or representation from a trade union representative if you have one.
In order for the harassment to stop you will need to tell the harasser that their behaviour (be specific) is unwelcome and that you want it to stop. You can ask a trusted colleague or trade union representative or even a friend to be with you. A witness is good for giving you moral support and may be able to provide or back-up evidence later if necessary. If you find it easier, you could write a letter, but remember to keep a copy.
Keep a record of any incidents and any action you take (a diary, copies of letters etc.). A diary should include the date and time of an incident, factual description of the unwanted activity, who else was present and how it made you feel. If anyone else is being harassed, get them to do the same. It is important that any sexual harassment is dealt with as soon as possible in order to protect yourself and colleagues in the future.
You should be supported throughout the whole process of dealing with the harassment. You can contact organisations like Rape Crisis for support.
In particular cases, even if the situation is resolved, you should not be made to work alongside the harasser if you feel you can’t (if they still have a job there). They should be moved by management – you should not be moved against your will. Again, it is the employer’s responsibility to take all reasonable steps to ensure your work environment is not threatening.