Calling out sexual abuse at work: your rights

Sexual abuse and sexual violence Awareness Week

This week is sexual abuse and sexual violence awareness week. An annual awareness raising week in February where organisations in the UK campaign against sexual abuse and violence.

The week aims to generate discussion among the general public, statutory bodies and the third sector about how sexual abuse and violence is not ok. The aim is to empower survivor and victims to send out a clear message that the UK collectively will be saying #ItsNotOk.

Sexual abuse at work 

A definition of sexual harassment is:
Any unwanted behaviour related to sex, or of a sexual nature, which violates the person’s dignity. This can include derogatory comments, unwanted touching and groping, sexual gestures, sexual advances, suggestive dancing and in worse cases, sexual assault and rape. 

The Trade Union Congresses’ (TUC) Sexual Harassment Report, Still Just a bit of Banter? published in 2016, found that:

  • 52% of all women polled for the report had experienced some form of sexual harassment;
  • 35% of women have heard comments of a sexual nature being made about other women in the workplace;
  • 32% of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature;
  • 28%  of women have been subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes;
  • c. 25% of women have experienced unwanted touching (such as a hand on the knee or lower back);
  • 20% women have experienced unwanted sexual advances;
  • a culture of sexual harassment creates a severe barrier for women (unsurprisingly);
  • 1 in 10 women reported sexual harassment had a negative impact on their mental health and;
  • 3% reported that there was also a negative impact on their physical health.

Having seen these statistics, it therefore makes sense that a majority of sexual harassment cases brought before the Employment Tribunal are brought by women.

The power imbalance

Priya Cunningham, an employment law consultant at Scottish law firm Watermans Solicitors states:

“In order for the behaviour to be unwanted, or unwelcome, the person does not need to have specifically objected to the behaviour. We seem to have moved on, partially, from a blame culture where women are somehow to blame if they don’t protest loud enough about the harassment they are subjected to. However, attitudes still exist where a woman is to blame if she is dressed a certain way or if she behaves a certain way. It is not an excuse to say that the behaviour from the perpetrator was just a bit of banter, and an employer cannot brush off the behaviour of their employee with this excuse.”

Priya also commented that “Many people still might know that conduct of another employee or of a boss on a works night out is still in the “course of employment”. Their employer has an obligation to investigate any complaints harassment that the woman might have been subjected to. Despite making inroads and moving away from a blame culture, women can be afraid to speak out. “

As a result of this, victims often don’t report the harassment to their employer. It is particularly difficult for them to report harassment if their direct boss is the perpetrator.  Younger women and trainees or junior members of staff can be particularly vulnerable. Over a fifth of women report that they have been harassed by their boss or someone in power. 

Once again, it’s unsurprising when there is such a power imbalance at play. Perpetrators can be very manipulative and know how to silence staff.

A recent case relating to sexual abuse at work

In October 2019, senior solicitor Ryan Beckwith  a Partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer was disciplined. He was fined for engaging in sexual activity with a junior colleague who was too intoxicated to give her consent. However, he is still able to practise as a solicitor.

Any senior member of staff in charge of junior staff holds a great deal of responsibility and sadly this is a position that can often be abused. A law firm based in London is proposing fines for Partners who abuse their position of power. This is a positive step forward, however this is only going to be effective in cases where women report harassment. 

Reporting sexual abuse, violence and harassment

Priya states “Of the women who admit that they have been sexually harassed by a colleague, more than half say that they have not reported it to their employer. There can be a number of reasons for this such as fear of not being believed, or the woman can be afraid that it will impact on their career progression. 

“Even worse than this, is a situation where the harassment is reported and nothing is done. “Employer’s don’t always deal with the situation effectively. For example,  in a case of serious assault an employer might not investigate the matter properly. If there are no criminal proceedings, this leaves woman in a difficult position. Despite this, victims need to speak up. The progress of the Me Too movement has shone a light on the issue of harassment and paved the way for women to stand up for their rights.”

People are sexually assaulted on a night out or work-based event may be entitled to compensation. 

Creating a positive culture

In the first instance all organisation should aim to create an environment that upholds professional standards, as well as having a zero tolerance policy against all discrimination.

  1. Make sure policies are fit for purpose, easy to read, accessible and usable. Policies should be anticipatory, by this I mean tried and tested prior to a complaint. Work with all your staff networks, local Rape Crisis and women’s groups to ensure you get it right.
  2. Provide training to ALL staff members on the policy, how to use it and where to access it. One of the most important things is to integrate this into management training. So again, it’s not reactive, but there is a proactive approach to setting high professional standards.
  3. Create a team charter so there is clarity about standards and how to behave at all times. This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how a simple agreement between all members of a team prevents poor behaviour.
  4. Think about events and alcohol consumption. Do all works events have to be focused around alcohol? There are many reasons for a teetotal event. People may be driving, breast feeding, be in recovery themselves or not want to drink. Ask yourself, does alcohol set the right tone for a professional event?
  5. Take all complaints seriously and investigate them inline with the clear policy you have. An open conversation with both parties is essential and not dismissing complaints as trivial, silly or petty helps to build trust with staff.

Have the conversation

Commemorate and talk about sexual abuse at work. It may sound strange, but there is a lot of work to do around de-stigmatising the subject. I am not suggesting forcing people to tell their stories. More like awareness-raising events during this week and beyond. Getting your company to tweet their support, talk about the work you are doing and picking a sexual abuse charity as your charity of the year. There are numerous ways to get and keep the conversation going.

What have you done or will you do to say #ItsNotOk? Let me know in the comments below.

You can also listen to the Diverse Minds Podcast about domestic and sexual violence at work here.

Legal information and quotes in this blog are from Lisa Boyle of Watermans Solicitors. If you would like more information about Watermans and how they can support you, you can find out more here.

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