LRD Booklets February 2018

Tackling sexual harassment at work - a guide for union reps



[pages 3-4]

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone at any time, in any place. All too often this sort of behaviour has been laughed off by perpetrators as a joke, or even a compliment, but for the people affected, who are overwhelmingly women, it can leave them feeling offended, humiliated and sometimes scared.

The term sexual harassment covers a wide range of behaviour ranging from inappropriate jokes, unwanted propositions, right through to serious sexual assault, but essentially it means someone is subjected to unwelcome and unwanted sexual behaviour.

There is no shortage of data showing how widespread this behaviour is. Half of British women, and a fifth of men, have been sexually harassed at work or a place of study, according to a BBC survey carried out at the end of 2017.

The TUC’s Still just a bit of banter? report (2016) found that a fifth of respondents said they had been sexually harassed by their boss or someone else with authority over them. Abuse of power is a common theme in sexual harassment cases with younger women employed on casual contracts particularly vulnerable.

The Sex Discrimination Law Review, launched in January 2018 by women’s campaigning group the Fawcett Society, found that violence against women and girls is “endemic” in the UK, and that the legal system as it currently stands is failing women.

Unfortunately, reporting levels for sexual harassment are low. The TUC report found that four out of five women who said they had experienced sexual harassment did not tell their employer, and only 1% of those polled by the TUC told a union rep about their experience.

The ongoing problem of sexual harassment became impossible to ignore when, in 2017, film producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of harassing and assaulting women over several decades, and using his position of influence to silence anyone who threatened to take him on.

The scandal deepened as it engulfed other powerful figures in Hollywood and has encouraged further revelations in other countries, industries and workplaces. These include Westminster, where there have been multiple allegations by junior staff against the MPs they served (see page 9).

Women who had never spoken out before have come forward in unprecedented numbers, including millions who shared their experiences of harassment using the hashtag #MeToo, demonstrating that sexual harassment is still very common and very harmful to women’s careers.

The need to take meaningful action to stop sexual harassment in the workplace has never been more evident. Trade unions want to ensure that the extensive media coverage can be translated into real change in the workplace.

They have called on the government to reinstate key protections that would help women seek justice. The government’s decision to introduce employment tribunal fees has been overruled after public services union UNISON won a landmark Supreme Court victory in July 2017, but the scrapping of the duty to protect workers from third party harassment still stands, as does the government’s decision to remove the ability of tribunals to give wider advice to employers beyond the one case they are dealing with.

Under mounting pressure from unions, women’s rights groups and some MPs, the government has now launched a formal inquiry to look at whether current laws around sexual harassment are sufficient, and the impact of harassment on victims and society.

Employers also need to accept that they have an important role to play. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has written to chairs of the FTSE 100 and other leading employers saying it will take legal action where there is evidence of systemic failing in preventing, or dealing with, sexual harassment.

Trade unions are running multiple campaigns. For example, entertainment workers’ union Equity has conducted an investigation to find practical solutions to combat sexual harassment and the fear of disclosure in the theatre, film, TV, audio and new media industries. Media and entertainment workers’ union BECTU is calling on employers in film and TV production to introduce a “respect at work” clause into all contracts to promote workplaces free from bullying and harassment. The NEU education union has issued a report calling on the government to take urgent steps to tackle sexism and sexual harassment in schools.

Pivotal to all of this is what is happening in individual workplaces and this booklet explains how union reps have a key role to play. Unions can help to create working environments where there is a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment, and ensure that good workplace policies and procedures are in place to deal with sexual harassment when it does occur.

Dealing with sexual harassment cases can be amongst the most challenging tasks asked of a rep. This LRD booklet gives step-by-step guidance looking at how reps can help complainants of sexual harassment, such as making and handling complaints, as well as ensuring that procedures are fair to all concerned.

Among other sources, the information in this booklet is informed by the experiences of local union reps, who were surveyed by LRD on how they are combating sexual harassment in the workplace.This guide includes:

• definitions of sexual harassment in the workplace with examples;

• a guide to the law with case law examples;

• guidance on changing workplace culture;

• information on drawing up a sexual harassment policy with examples;

• step-by-step guidance on dealing with a complaint; and

• guidance on representing someone accused of sexual harassment.