Staff should know what is acceptable in relationships.

As the ‘Pestminster’ scandal continues, Robert Bates of Jordans Solicitors, answers questions about sexual harassment at work.

What is sexual harassment at work?

Under the Equality Act 2010 sexual harassment occurs where someone engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature towards another and that conduct has the purpose or effect of violating their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

At work, the law protects everyone from job applicants to employees, workers and others in employment.

Why should employers take action on sexual harassment?

Employers are vicariously liable for harassment committed by their employees in the course of employment. Employers can also be liable for harassment by third parties at work (eg. customers) if they are aware of the harassment and fail to act.

But isn’t sexual harassment just flirting / banter?

It is only natural that colleagues will form consensual relationships. This must not be confused with sexual harassment, which should never be dismissed as flirting or written off as “banter”. It is an essential part of sexual harassment that the conduct is unwanted and the effect serious. The victim’s perception is key, along with the surrounding circumstances and whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect. Much of this is common sense. Most of us can tell the difference between two consenting adults and a person, usually in a position of power, taking advantage.

Are we becoming too sensitive?

In our experience when clients come to us complaining of sexual harassment they are genuine people with legitimate complaints.

With allegations of abuse rife in Hollywood and Westminster, commentators on all sides further their own agendas by exaggerating or belittling. But the clients we help are real people who are going through a difficult time. Their job is in jeopardy, they have bills to pay and they are usually pitting themselves against a person in power. Added to that, making untrue allegations in bad faith against a colleague is a quick way to get sacked for gross misconduct. People who come forward do not do so lightly.

Where do we go from here?

For victims, support is available from ACAS and your local solicitor. You may have put up with harassment for weeks/months/years but that does not mean it is unwanted. Just because you respond with “banter” as a coping strategy does not mean harassment is ok. Just because you were previously in a consensual relationship which ended does not mean harassment is acceptable. You are protected against harassment.

For employers, a good Equal Opportunities Policy combined with awareness, training and proper action in the event of a breach can help establish a defence to a claim against harassment where it does not stamp it out in the first place.

For more information or to speak to one of our Employment Solicitors about sexual harassment at work please call us on 01924 387 110.

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