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Unwanted sexual contact at work – what employers must know

Amanda Okill
benefits

In the wake of revelations about groping and sexual harassment at the Presidents’ Club charity dinner last month, one of Kent’s leading employment specialists has called on employers to give more consideration to the risks younger workers are exposed to. Contributor Amanda Okill, Senior Associate – Furley Page Solicitors.

Sadly, the revelations of sexual harassment at the Presidents’ Club dinner, in the film industry and at Parliament did not come as a great surprise; as an employment lawyer I hear of these sorts of incidents time and again. My own exposure to harassment has often been irritating and at times unsettling, though fortunately nothing more. Although this was over 20 years ago, long before the Equality Act 2010, I fear little has changed and younger female workers are still routinely exposed to degrading and possibly dangerous behaviour.”

Research shows that younger women aged 18-24 are far more likely to report that they have experienced sexual harassment and gender-based bullying, as are those with insecure working arrangements, such as people on zero hours contracts. Although men and women of all ages are affected by sexual harassment, younger people, and particularly women making their way into the labour market are among the most vulnerable.

Younger people starting out in the labour market are often unfamiliar with acceptable standards and, despite the recent press coverage, are likely to be way out of their depth if subjected to sexual harassment, particularly by someone in a position of authority. At its root, sexual harassment is not about sex, it’s about power, exercised through unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading and humiliating environment for the recipient. Because it’s about power, it strikes hardest at the most precariously positioned in the labour market, often the most economically and socially vulnerable.

It cannot be right that a generation after the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, sexual harassment in the workplace remains rife and those entering the workforce in 2018 still remain at risk. Amanda advises that if an organisation is serious about stamping out sexual harassment, it must address its own cultural norms. This requires a proactive approach from those in leadership and positions of influence:

Organisations must be willing to make difficult decisions and stick with them. Perpetrators of sexual harassment must not be allowed to get away with inappropriate behaviour, even if they are in positions of power. Policies on anti-harassment and equal opportunities must be clear and fit for purpose. Such policies should be reviewed by someone with a strategic role in the organisation.

Importantly, employers should ensure that all staff including workers and contractors are covered by anti-harassment and equal opportunities policies. Organisations should make sure the policies contain some clear examples of sexual harassment so everyone understands what acceptable boundaries are and what are not. Businesses should integrate training on the policies into the induction for new starters and equal opportunity training for management.

Businesses may want to consider who they use to provide services such as catering, cleaning etc. Enormous reputational damage can be done to an end user when agency staff, mistreated by their own employer, work for or at the end user’s premises. Often press reporting fails to make a clear distinction between the two. With new recruits employers should consider ways in which senior members of the organisation could be more accessible if any problem arose. A mentor or workplace buddy, along with a staff partner could together operate as invaluable contact points. Ultimately the aim has to be to create a fair place for everyone, young and old. It’s not going to happen if new starters are led to believe that harassment is an unwanted rite of passage to be endured at the start of their working life.