Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What Is It and How Do I Report It?

August 27, 2018
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A 2017 study by BBC Radio 5 Live found that half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work or in a place of study. Clearly, sexual harassment is a widespread issue that exists across many of our institutions and industries.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in workplaces is significant and growing. Experiencing such an issue at work can be distressing to cope with, especially considering that your average full-time worker spends a third of their waking time in work. However, sexual harassment isn’t something that you should have to cope with.

This article explains common signs of sexual harassment so that you know what behaviours to look out for. It also details how you should report sexual harassment if you’re a victim of it.

Signs of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that is offensive or makes you feel uncomfortable, humiliated, distressed, degraded, or intimidated. It creates a hostile and offensive environment. Even if it isn’t directed at you, something that makes you feel this way is still sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment can be committed by someone of the same sex or the opposite sex, and it can come from peers or someone in a position of authority.

Common signs of sexual harassment are:

  • Sexual comments and jokes. This includes both when you are the subject of the joke and when you’re not.
  • Physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching, and all forms of sexual assault.
  • Somebody displaying pictures, photos, drawings etc. of a sexual nature. For example, on their computer desktop background or erotic calendars.
  • Sending messages with a sexual content. These can occur over text, emails, or an internal company messaging system.
  • Facial expressions, hand gestures, and body movements of a sexual nature.
  • Offensive comments on social media sites.
  • Somebody staring or leering at your body.
  • Somebody subjecting you to sexual propositions.
  • Intrusive questions about your private or sex life.

Behaviour of this nature is often described as just a ‘bit of banter’ – a phrase that massively downplays and trivialises the impact that sexual harassment can have on its victims.

male colleague inappropriately touching fellow colleague

Am I Being Sexually Harassed at Work?

If you find yourself asking this question, it’s likely that someone is committing behaviour that’s making you feel uncomfortable, which is never acceptable. If anybody makes you feel this way or commits the above behaviours, then it’s important you report them.

How to Report Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

If you are a victim of sexual harassment, it’s crucial to report the issue as soon as possible. This will not only stop the issue happening to you, but also to anybody else who is a victim or could be a victim in the future.

Reporting sexual harassment at work can seem daunting, especially if the harasser is somebody in a senior position of power or someone who you consider a friend. However, if their behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable or degraded then you need to speak up.

Check Your Workplace’s Sexual Harassment Policy

The first thing you should do to make a complaint is check your workplace’s sexual harassment policy. All employers must have a sexual harassment policy in place, which can help you better understand how your workplace handles harassment. Furthermore, it should explain who to make your complaint to, such as your employer, manager, supervisor, HR department, or a local trade union representative.

employee distressed due to sexual harassment at work

Make Notes

You should make notes of any behaviour that you’re subjected to and think is sexual harassment. Make notes on:

  • The behaviour/ action/ what was said.
  • How this made you feel.
  • The date(s) it happened.
  • If anybody else has said they’re also a victim of the behaviour.

Write Your Complaint

You should make your complaint in writing, such as by email or letter, and keep a copy of it. By submitting a complaint in writing, as opposed to vocally, you have a backup of your complaint should somebody deny it.

You should send the complaint to whoever the sexual harassment policy says has responsibility. If, however, this is the person whom your complaint is about, take your complaint to somebody else in a senior position of authority.

Ideally, all claims of harassment should be handled in the workplace. You should receive the opportunity to fully explain your complaint and the resolution you want from it, for example if you want an apology from the perpetrator or further action from the company.

drafting a workplace sexual harassment policy

The Grievance Procedure and Decision to Appeal

If your employer can’t handle the dispute informally, you can raise a grievance. After you initially make the complaint, your employer should investigate it and then a grievance hearing will follow.

If you feel like you need support, a work colleague or trade union representative can accompany you to the hearing. Following the hearing, your employer should inform you of the outcome in writing without reasonable delay.

If you’re unhappy with the outcome of the procedure, you can appeal. The appeal hearing is similar to the grievance hearing except it investigates further into why you’re unhappy with the decision and any new evidence. You also have a right to have someone accompany you to this hearing.

Employment Tribunals

If you’re unhappy with the results of both the grievance hearing and the appeal hearing, you can take your complaint further.

You can contact ACAS to start early conciliation. This is a process in which both sides of a legal dispute try to reach an agreement before the case goes to an employment tribunal. If this fails, you can take your case to an employment tribunal as a last resort.

Can I Report Sexual Harassment for Someone Else?

If you notice that somebody is facing sexual harassment, or they’ve confided in you about it, you should encourage them to speak out.

If they don’t report it themselves, consider speaking to your manager or HR department and reporting it on their behalf. You are legally protected from retaliation (mistreatment for speaking out against harassment) should you face backlash for reporting the claim.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is never acceptable and you should never put up with it. If you face sexual harassment at work, whether it’s from your employer, manager, supervisor, or colleague, speaking up is essential. Follow the above steps and report it.

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