How to speak up about sexual harassment

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Following the hundreds of thousands of people that have joined the #MeToo movement, uncovering the magnitude of sexual harassment at work, what should you say or do if you encounter the problem?

The first thing to bear in mind is that the sheer volume of people speaking out about the problem means that a new zero-tolerance attitude towards sexual harassment is emerging.

Even so, it can be quite difficult to challenge someone when something happens if you’re still not sure if you have a right to be feeling affected. If your boss lunges at you in a lift, but you manage to dodge him and he acts like nothing happened, do you still have a right to feel violated?

If a client puts his hand on your thigh and it makes you feel uncomfortable, but he’s quite ‘tactile’, is that something you can object to or not?

The answer is to listen to your feelings. If what’s happening is making you feel embarrassed, offended, humiliated or intimidated in any way, you have a right to speak out. As with bullying, it’s not the behaviour itself that matters, but how it’s making you feel.

If you are subjected to sexual behaviour or comments that are violating your dignity or making your feel intimidated, humiliated or degraded, you have a right to be offended and speak up.

Speak out at the time

The moment anything happens that you’re not happy with, you need to assertively say, “Please don’t do that,” or “I find that a very inappropriate comment,” or, if you’re feeling particularly threatened, “No. How dare you touch me like that/talk to me like that.”

It’s important to be assertive and not doubt yourself or present yourself as a victim, because that might not be enough to make the person stop. Don’t say, “I’m not sure that’s okay,” in a timid doubtful voice. Know that you have the full weight of the law behind you and say in a firm voice, “I’m not happy for you to say those things to me or touch me like that.”

If you don’t feel able to do that, because of the person’s seniority, your own confidence levels or because you don’t feel safe to challenge them, it’s important that you remove yourself from the situation and talk to someone about what just happened.

At the same time, you need to make a note of exactly what happened, where it happened, what you said or did, how it made you feel and if anyone else witnessed it.

What if it keeps happening?

If you are continually being harassed, you can explain to the person responsible for the offensive behaviour that their actions are causing you distress, send them an email outlining the issue as you see it (keeping it balanced and sticking to the facts), or talk to others about what you are experiencing to see if anyone else has been subjected to the same behaviour so you can make a collective complaint.

For too long, cultures of silence have allowed perpetrators to continually inflict unwanted behaviour on others.

Figures released by the TUC show that even though two-thirds of 18-24 year olds have been sexually harassed at work, 79% chose not to tell their employer. Some feared it would impact negatively on relationships with colleagues. Others were too embarrassed to talk about it or thought they wouldn’t be taken seriously.

If you feel that you’ve been sexually harassed or something inappropriate has happened more than once, it’s essential that you tell your manager, a senior colleague, business leader or someone in HR. Put it in writing and keep a copy.

Your employer has a duty of care to keep you safe and not deliberately put you into situations that make you feel unsafe or humiliated, degraded or violated on the basis of your gender, under the 2010 Equalities Act.

If they continue to do so, or fail to contain the harassment, causing you to leave your job, there might be a case for ‘unfair constructive dismissal’, so it’s in their interests to support you.

What if the person is very senior?

As the Harvey Weinstein case shows, there has been a tendency in the past for organisations to turn a blind eye, resulting in what might be described as a culture of corporate complicity. All too often, those who should be in a position to help have instead opted not to intervene after buying into the idea that the perpetrator is “too important to the business,” or “too powerful to be challenged.”

If this is the case, you might need to work hard to find someone senior enough to confront the behaviour and/or move you into another department.

No matter how senior the person, you also have rights and you might need to remind other people of that. At the same time, you need to find people who can provide emotional support, such as the counsellor at the end of an Employee Assistance Programme or charity helpline, while you find a way through.

Dealing with sexual harassment can be a very stressful and isolating thing to do, so it’s important that you support yourself emotionally while you work to resolve things.

Avoid being alone with the person and continue to collect evidence of their behaviour, by keeping a diary and collecting testimony from witnesses. If there is a formal procedure for making a sexual harassment complaint, initiate this by raising a formal grievance.

What if you see someone else being harassed?

It’s very tempting to turn a blind eye when we see someone else in difficulties, for fear that we might just transfer the problem onto ourselves. But by ignoring our moral compass and not helping we only eat away at our own self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

‘Humour’ is often used to disguise sexual harassment, with inappropriate things being done or said only for the perpetrator to say that they were ‘just joking’ and the person needs to ‘lighten up’ or ‘develop a sense of humour’.

If you observe that happening, it can be very helpful to the victim and the culture of the company to speak out by saying, ‘Actually I don’t find that funny. I find it offensive.’ Or, if you don’t feel able to do that, report what’s going on to someone, such as a senior leader, who might be in a better position to clarify what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.

If your company has a dignity at work policy, suggest that this be publicly communicated to everyone – including who victims can talk to, the process for dealing with complaints and the consequences for those found breaking the rules. Training might also need to be offered if clarifying the company’s position on sexual harassment isn’t enough.

Only by speaking out and taking action can we become the generation to end a problem that has been allowed to fester in silence for far too long.

About Judith Twycross

Judith Twycross, clinical case manager, Validium

Judith Twycross is a member of British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (MBACP) and clinical case manager for Validium, the employee wellbeing and mental health solution provider. She works closely with individuals, and their employers, to help them find their way through any difficulties faced, from berevament and relationship breakdown to sexual harassment and domestic violence to trauma and other mental health issues. She holds an MA in Relationship Therapy, a PGDip in Relaitonship Therapy, is a qualified and experienced Relate Counsellor and registered member for the British Association for Counselling and Pscyhotherapy (BACP).

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