Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

What is harassment and sexual harassment?

Harassment is unwelcome conduct or behaviour based upon a particular personal characteristic such as age, race, gender, disability, religion or sexuality. Again this is an objective test- just because an individual may not consider behaviour unwelcome- doesn’t mean it is not.

When assessing whether conduct is ‘unwelcome’ all circumstances must be considered. It is important to consider the nature of the conduct and whether the ‘victim’ has communicated that the conduct is welcome/unwelcome. It can also be useful to assess the difference between the two individuals- it is likely an individual may feel like they can’t speak up if they perceive they are in a position of substantially less power.

Whilst it is possible for someone to suffer bullying and harassment at the same time, harassment can consist of one single incident.

Harassment, like bullying, is unlawful and should be dealt with following the same process of prevention and action: ensuring there is a policy, staff are trained on it and any complaints have sufficient detail and are adequately investigated.

Sexual harassment is a breed of harassment specifically focussing on unwelcome sexual harassment where a reasonable person, having regard to all of the circumstances, would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

Sexual harassment, like bullying, can be direct or indirect. It can take the form of physical or verbal harassment, be repeated or occur in a single incident. Sexual harassment can be perpetrated by males or females against someone of the same or opposite sex. Examples of sexual harassment can include: suggestive comments or jokes, staring, insults of a sexual nature, unwelcome touching or requests for dates/sex/sexual favours. Sexual harassment can be behaviour that would otherwise offend criminal law such as physical assault, indecent exposure or obscene communication.

Sexual harassment is a topical issue- for this reason a policy and training is essential. In the event of a complaint being made, early intervention and strong leadership are crucial- creating a zero tolerance policy needs to start from management and carry through the organisation. Claims must be dealt with in a manner that is consistent and confidential- ensuring the risk of gossip is kept to a minimum.

Sexual harassment claims are likely to be awkward and difficult to deal with due to the highly emotional and sometimes confrontational nature of the accusations. For this reason, sexual harassment claims are best dealt with by those with investigation experience who are able to act as unbiased decision maker.