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Dealing with Sexual Harassment

What constitutes harassment and how to protect yourself from it.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature.

Since there is no single definition, the test is how the recipient feels about the behaviour, but it is normally behaviour that has the effect of violating one’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment.

Sexual discrimination may refer to financial losses and unfairness of opportunity, sexual harassment however is ultimately more personable – it is enough that the individual feels intimidated, offended as a person.

The vast majority of complaints of sexual harassment have been by women against men – it has been estimated that 50% of women in employment are affected by such harassment.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances. Often, but not always, the harasser is in a position of power or authority over the victim (due to differences in age, or social, political, educational or employment relationships).

Single incidents can constitute harassment, although generally speaking, a one-off incident would have to be more serious. Normally one is looking at a pattern of behaviour, which may continue or worsen with the passage of time.

• The harasser can be anyone, such as a client, a co-worker, a teacher or professor, a student, a friend, or a stranger.
• The victim does not have to be the person directly harassed but can be anyone who finds the behaviour offensive and is affected by it.
• While adverse effects on the victim are common, this does not have to be the case for the behaviour to be unlawful.
• The victim can be male or female. The harasser can be male or female.
• The harasser does not have to be of the opposite sex.
• The harasser may be completely unaware that his or her behavior is offensive or constitutes sexual harassment or may be completely unaware that his or her actions could be unlawful.

It is also worth bearing in mind that many people respond to situations in different ways. What may seem like an innocent action or remark to one person may be deemed offensive by another and the law sides with the 'victim' not the 'perpetrator'. Since there is no single definition, the test is how the recipient feels. It can take place in many forms which can broadly be categorised in 3 groups:

Verbal

• Comments about appearance, body or clothes
• Indecent remarks
• Questions or comments about your sex life
• Requests for sexual favours
• Sexual demands made by someone of the opposite sex, or even your own sex
• Promises or threats concerning a person's employment conditions in return for sexual favours
Non-Verbal

• Looking or staring at a person's body
• Display of sexually explicit material such as calendars, pin ups or magazines

Physical

• Physically touching, pinching, hugging, caressing, kissing
• Sexual assault
• Rape

Dealing with Sexual Harassment

In the first instance, you should try to confront the harasser. It may be that their perception of harassment is not the same as yours and they didn't realise you found their behaviour offensive. When you confront them you should:

• Speak clearly and slowly, maintaining direct eye contact
• Describe the behaviour, its effects on you and that you want it to stop
• Ignore any attempts to trivialise or dismiss what you have to say
• Don't smile or apologise. This will undermine your complaint
• When you have finished what you want to say, walk away – the less you say, the more powerful you will be

However, you do need to speak up straight away. It may be that you choose a confidante, a colleague or union representative to give you moral support. They could also act as a witness to any incidents of improper behaviour.

If you feel you can't confront the harasser face to face, you might prefer to write to them to explain that their behaviour is making you feel uncomfortable and that you want it to stop. Keep a copy of the letter and let them know that if their behaviour persists, you will take the matter further.

Keep a Diary

Note down all the behaviour that offends you, the dates, times and location where the behaviour took place and if there were any other people present, keep a record of their names. This will help you if you need to make an official complaint.

What if it Continues?

Once you've confronted the perpetrator, if the behaviour continues you need to tell your employer. Many employers have a procedure – follow it. Your employer should investigate your complaint and deal with it. You have the right to take someone with you to any meetings about your complaint. They can back you up if necessary. Once again, keep a written record of everything that happens.

When and Why Should I Take my Case to a Tribunal?

Tribunals are external committees who assess whether employers have acted unlawfully and seek to resolve the problem. You should go to a tribunal if:
• The harassment continues after you've told the perpetrator to stop and you've reported it to your employer
• The harasser owns the company and there's no-one else to complain to
• If you are not happy with the way the investigation was handled and/or you are not satisfied with the outcome

You MUST File Your Complaint Within 3 Months of The Incident Taking Place.

The Employment Tribunals Commission and your local Citizen's Advice Bureau can offer you excellent guidance and advice about this type of complaint.

Sexual harassment at work threatens your confidence and self-esteem. It can stop you working effectively, undermines your dignity and it can affect your health and happiness.

Nobody should be subjected to it. Fortunately, a variety of laws exist to protect you.

Further information

• Women Against Sexual Harassment (WaSH), 5th Floor The Wheel, 4 Wild Court (off Kingsway), London WC2B 4AU (020 7405 0430)

The Equal Opportunities Commission, Head Office, Overseas House, Quay Street, Manchester M3 3HN (0161 833 9244; fax: 835 1657; email:[email protected]). Wales: Windsor House, Windsor Lane, Cardiff CF1 3DE (01222 343552; fax: 641079; email: wal[email protected]) Scotland: Stock Exchange House, 7 Nelson Mandela Place, Glasgow G2 1QW; email:[email protected] For equality issues in Northern Ireland contact the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

Your Trade Union

• Rights of Women, 52 Featherstone Street, London EC1Y 8RT (020 7251 6577)

• Citizens Advice Bureau – look in Yellow Pages, ask at your local library or call the National Association of Citizen’s Advice Bureaux in England and Wales (020 7833 2181), in Scotland (0131 667 0156) and in Northern Ireland (028 90 231120)

• Your local law centre – look in Yellow Pages or call the Law Centres Federation (020 7387 8570; Scotland: 0141 561 7266)

By David O’Neill
Cartwright Adams

October 2009

The above article is meant to be relied upon as an informative article and in no way constitutes legal advice. For legal advice regarding your case, please contact Cartwright Adams on +4420 7887 7550 for a Consultation with a Solicitor.

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