The recent allegations of harassment raised by the Williams’ former PA and house manager and claims that the army needs to do more to stamp it out have brought to the fore discussions on sexual harassment in the workplace.  So what are the implications for ’ordinary’ employers?

The legal bit

Harassment can take several forms under the Equality Act based on the protected characteristic of sex (relating to the victim’s sex, conduct of a sexual nature and where someone is treated less favourably because they have either rejected or submitted to the conduct).  In all cases, the purpose or effect of such conduct must have violated the person’s dignity or have created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

Is harassment at work a big issue?

For the Williams’ PA and house manager it allegedly was.  It is reported that their male ex-employee has brought proceedings claiming sexual harassment against Mrs Williams in respect of her allegedly walking around half naked in front of him, asking about his sex life and forcing him to talk about sex.

In addition, the army’s most senior female officer spoke out about sexual harassment saying that the army needed to redouble its efforts to stop it occurring.  Her comments followed a survey commissioned by Business in the Community in 2014 which found that 23% of women in the armed forces had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last three years – which is more than double the average of 12% across all sectors.

The figure in the armed forces is worryingly high but other sectors cannot rest on their laurels.

What is causing the problem?

At this point it is perhaps helpful to take an historic look at examples where workplaces have tolerated certain behaviour that would be unacceptable today.  We have moved on (in a good way) – no longer are stock market traders in the City treated to the performance of a stripper on a Friday afternoon  and calendars or pictures of the topless page 3 model on display at work are no longer viewed as acceptable in the workplace.

These are perhaps obvious examples but it isn’t only the clear and advertent cases that are of concern.  Society and the media help shape and influence what is seen as acceptable banter or light-hearted jesting which then transcends into the workplace.  And this is where the problems can start.

Take as one example the treatment of female athletes.  Comments when referencing female sportspersons are sometimes derogatory and based on their appearance rather than their sporting prowess.  Who can forget the now infamous comment by John Inverdale about Marion Bartoli last year when he declared that she had to be good at something as she was ‘never going to be a looker’.  And let’s not overlook the, albeit ‘virtual’, sexual harassment of female football players last month.

In the gaming world, EA Sports announced that they are to introduce a women’s team in its FIFA 16 computer game.  This prompted a spate of sexist ‘jokes’ from some saying that players would be out of action for 9 months when having a baby, out injured for breaking a nail, ranked on stats such as pace and shooting, as well as cooking and moaning…and so the comments went on.  Now most (giving the benefit of the doubt), if not all, of these comments were probably meant in jest and those making them may well argue that they were light-hearted, unintentional and played to the age-old female stereotypes.  That may be so but such comments and views do permeate through to the workplace where they have no place.

So what’s the solution?

It goes without saying that employers should have a policy on harassment at work and an equal opportunities policy and that managers and employees must be trained on these to provide a defence to harassment claims – but it needs more than this.  Whenever an inappropriate or borderline comment, remark, gesture or look is made managers and anyone in a senior or supervisory position should step in to make it clear to the perpetrator that it is unacceptable and the behaviour should not be repeated.  This is regardless of whether the intention of the perpetrator was to harass or offend. If the warning is not heeded and the behaviour carries on, more formal steps should be taken, potentially disciplinary action, to stamp out such behaviour. Employees should also be encouraged to speak up if they witness or are the recipient of inappropriate behaviours.

As many employers will know, it only takes one person to take offence for a claim to be brought.  If responsible employers are doing all they can to eradicate sexual harassment in their workplace it makes it all the less likely that they would be criticised by an Employment Tribunal.

NB Whilst the focus of this article is on sexual harassment against women in the main, the problem exists on both sides of the gender divide and must be treated equally seriously and stringently, as must all cases of harassment on whatever basis.

Title image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.





Helen is well-versed in the specialist area of employment / labour law, advising HR professionals, in-house counsel, directors and managers on human resource and employment law issues. She has particular experience of TUPE and outsourcing; Tribunals; business-related immigration; collective and union issues; whistle blowing; disciplinary, grievance and dismissal issues; and drafting and negotiating senior executive termination agreements (on behalf of both employer clients and senior individuals).