Sexual harassment still all too common says EOC

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Twenty years on from Jean Porcelli’s landmark case, which established sexual harassment as a form of harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act, new figures from the Equal Opportunities Commission show there have been 260 successful cases brought for sexual harassment over the past five years – roughly one a week.

Sexual harassment makes up 22% of all tribunal cases and can include anything from questions about someone’s sex life to indecent assault and rape. It also makes up a fifth of the calls to the EOC’s helpline.

As well as pursuing the harasser, the victim can take the employer to a tribunal as the organisation has a duty to prevent harassment. The average award for sexual harassment is more than £14,000.

Employers can defend a claim if they show they took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee’s behaviour. Essentially that means having a policy, ensuring employees are aware of it and understand it and enforcing it.

In the case of A v B Ltd and others, a female employee complained about her male colleagues’ behaviour. The company put up a notice saying that sexual harassment was unacceptable. The woman was sexually assaulted by three men. The tribunal held that simply putting up a notice was not enough, saying: “People need to be told in the plainest terms if employers are to get the message across.”

The EOC advises that it is better to deal with sexual harassment claims informally if practical but that it is important to thoroughly investigate before dismissing any claims.

Complaints should be dealt with quickly without revealing the identity of the victim or alleged harasser to the rest of the workforce. It is important not to allow other members of the workforce to take sides.

Both parties should be advised that there should be no communication between them in relation to the complaint. If there is a problem with them working together, then consider suspending both parties on full pay until the allegation is dealt with. The person making the complaint should not be moved unless they make the request.

“Jean Porcelli, a school science technician working for the Strathclyde Regional Council, brought her case after experiencing a sustained campaign of harassment from two male colleagues, some of which was sexual in nature. Initial harassment included stealing her keys, disturbing her experiments and emptying out her desk drawers. It soon escalated to rubbing up against her, blocking her path in stairways and corridors, and threatening her with physical violence.

Jean Porcelli did not resign her job and, therefore, had no remedy under employment protection legislation at that time, which was narrower than the current Employment Rights Act. She looked to the SDA to challenge her treatment and ensure that her employer took action to address the workplace culture."

EOC, 2006

Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said: “Twenty years on from Jean Porcelli’s landmark case, sexual harassment is still an issue causing women stress, health problems and financial penalties when they leave their jobs to avoid it.

“We suspect that the cases that come to our attention are the tip of the iceberg. It’s important for women to know what they can do to tackle harassment - and for employers to know how they can help stamp it out in the workplace.”

Jean Porcelli said: “It disheartens me that sexual harassment still happens – sadly my own daughter has experienced it. And I can certainly understand why so many women are reluctant to come forward – I know I paid a great price, both personally and professionally.

“Despite changing jobs, I was labelled a ‘troublemaker’ until the resulting stress and ill health eventually prompted me to take early retirement. In my day, there was no shortage of managers – and even my union officials – who told me to sit down, keep quiet and get on with my job, a response some women still experience today.”

The EOC has also commissioned new research into sexual harassment to be released later this year. Early findings indicate harassment is most common:

  • Where there are far more men than women and vice versa.
  • where one sex, typically men, hold the positions of power and junior roles are held by the other sex.
  • during periods of job insecurity or when a new supervisor or manager is appointed.
  • where the leadership style is either too authoritarian or too laissez faire.

Susan Anderson, CBI Director of Human Resources Policy, said: “The anniversary of Jean Porcelli’s victory is a reminder of how far we’ve come since 1986. Harassment is not just an issue for women and, whether on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or age, it is not acceptable. Of course it will still occur but attitudes and behaviour have changed greatly over the last 20 years and incidents are thankfully few and far between.”

To mark the anniversary of the case brought by Jean Porcelli, the EOC has published new guidelines to help employers prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces. They can be found at: EOC sexual harassment checklist
and Sexual harassment managers questions


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