Sexual assault in the workplace: What to do if it happens to you

It’s been commonplace in many workplaces for decades.

But now, as a raft of allegations against well-known figures including international trade minister Mark Garnier and former work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb emerge in the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, sexual assault and harassment is finally coming under the spotlight.

From the famous actresses who have spoken out, to the thousands who have shared their experiences on Twitter using the#MeToo hashtag, those who have been affected by sexual abuse are coming out of the shadows and fighting back.

According to employment law solicitor Lindsey Knowles from Kirwans law firm, the stories we’ve heard so far could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.

“For years, this type of behaviour by people in positions of power has been tolerated by mostly women, but also men and people who identify as transgender, in all walks of life who feel they have to grin and bear it in order to keep their job or further their careers,” she said.

“They are made to feel vulnerable by perpetrators who indulge in inappropriate sexual conduct, which can range from ambiguous innuendoes and unwanted comments about their body or clothes to far more serious offences.”

Lindsey’s comments are backed up by a BBC report published this week, which found that half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work or a place of study.

The shock findings also revealed that, of the women who said they had been harassed, 63% said they didn’t report it to anyone, and 79% of the male victims kept it to themselves. 

“Many people will be amazed at these figures, but may at the same time be aware of inappropriate sexual behaviour in their own workplace,” said Lindsey.

“We should all be aware that there are clear laws in place to protect people from this sort of unwanted – and in some cases illegal – attention.”

Under the Equality Act 2010, there are three different types of harassment relating to sex. These are, if someone makes an employee feel humiliated, offended or degraded, perhaps through a comment about their sex; if a person is treated in a sexual way that makes them feel humiliated, offended or degraded; or through a person being treated unfairly because they refused to put up with sexual harassment -  even if the person affected had previously had a sexual relationship with the perpetrator.

“As well as constituting sexual harassment,” said Lindsey, “some types of behaviour such as unwanted phone calls and messages, the sending of indecent or offensive messages through social media, and unwelcome touching by someone for their sexual gratification, also fall under various pieces of criminal legislation and would be treated by police as a crime.

“Regardless of the criminal nature of these activities, all sexual harassment at work in the UK is covered by the Equality Act, and should be reported to employers.”

Here Lindsey offers advice to on what to do if you experience sexual harassment and assault at work:

1)    Say no: If you feel able, tell the person who is harassing you that their behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable and that they need to stop. In some cases, once they have realised how they have made you feel they will apologise and refrain from making similar comments in the future. If more unpleasant conduct is levelled at you as a result the conversation, you will have a further case against the perpetrator and should continue to follow the points below; 

2)    Consider informing the police: If the offence is a sexual assault, which can range from unwanted touching to rape, then depending on the severity of the offence, you may wish to report it to the police;

3)    Keep a record: Create a diary of any incidents that take place and any relevant conversations you have with the perpetrator, including the date, time, and any witnesses who were present. Be as specific as possible, as this record may act as evidence in the future. Also keep copies of any relevant documents, such as emails or letters;

4)    Consult your trade union or HR: Talk to your trade union or HR team about raising a grievance following any written grievance procedure that is in place. Again, keep a note of the conversations had in respect to this, as they may prove essential if you eventually take your case to an employment tribunal;

5)    Look at your options: If you’re ready to leave your employment, you may choose to wait and see what the outcome is of the grievance procedure. Alternatively, you could raise the issues and the potential of a settlement agreement with the organisation, or resign and potentially claim constructive dismissal or harassment. Seek the advice of a specialist employment solicitor if you decide to leave, or you may risk losing any chance to pursue justice at a later date; 

6)    Move quickly: Any claims heard in the Employment Tribunal, such as constructive dismissal or harassment, must be presented within three months of the act being complained of taking place, so if you plan to choose this course of action you should act swiftly;

7)    Seek help: Don’t underestimate the effect that sexual harassment and assault can have. Victim Support provide specialist counselling and support and can be contacted on 0845 30 30 900.

As Featured In: Liverpool Echo 

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