Sexual harassment: Is it happening in your workplace

It seems not a week goes by without allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour making the news. Yet it’s not just confined to the celebrity world, warns Dr Anna Loutfi, an employment barrister and part of The Barrister Group

Sexual harassment is it happening in your workplace

A study published in September in the British Journal of Surgery amongst a surgical workforce found that 63% of women and 23% of men had experienced sexual harassment by colleagues. And no one can fail not to have been moved by the plight of teenage female soldier, Jaysley Beck, who killed herself after a campaign of abuse and harassment by her line manager. 

But do you know if it is happening in your workplace? You may be surprised to know that it is more prevalent than you think. 

We recently undertook a study of over 2,000 UK workers and almost a third reported they had experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour at work. Sadly, only half felt confident enough to report it. 

Groping, stroking, inappropriate comments and threats that it would harm their career if they did not return sexual advances were among the unwanted attention received, mostly from senior colleagues. 

Victims described feeling violated, intimidated, ashamed, degraded and scared, but many chose to stay silent rather than report it for fear they would be treated negatively as a result.

The study, evenly split by gender, found that 29% had been a victim of sexually inappropriate behaviour from a colleague. Almost one in three women (31%) were affected, compared to one in four men (26%) and 69% said the perpetrator was someone more senior.

Almost half (48%) did not report the matter and of those who did, many said they felt awkward, isolated, were accused of overreacting and, in 12% of cases, forced to find another job. 

The main reasons for staying silent included fears that they wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously, and even that they would be blamed. 

For many of us, the #MeToo movement felt like a watershed moment which started a wider conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. So the fact that sexual harassment is still so prevalent in the workplace is hugely disappointing.

Recent celebrity scandals may have heightened public awareness of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, but the reality seems to be that far too many people are still putting up with it for fear that they will be seen as the problem rather than the perpetrator. That is fundamentally wrong and employers must address it.

Worryingly, although most people claimed they knew what constituted inappropriate behaviour, a third didn’t think touching someone’s breasts, slapping their bum or making sexual comments about their appearance was wrong. 

Further, a third (34%) of workers believed their bosses were complicit and happy to look the other way anyway, while a quarter (23%) described their workplace culture as sexist or misogynistic. Less than two-thirds (61%) said their employer had a policy in place to deal with sexually inappropriate behaviour.

It is surprising that so many people still don’t recognise that certain behaviours are wrong, and, for the avoidance of doubt, employers should have clear policies in place. 

There is obviously a distinction between what is unlawful and what is inappropriate, but both are unacceptable in the workplace.  

Employers have a legal duty of care and employees have a right to expect that they will not be made to feel uncomfortable, intimidated or violated in the course of their work. 

There needs to be a culture of openness and transparency, where employees feel empowered to report inappropriate behaviour and are confident that when they do, they will be supported, and the necessary action will be taken.

Given the increasing awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, now is the time for employers to ask themselves some hard questions about the kind of workplace they have.

Dr Anna Loutfi
Dr Anna Loutfi

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