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Sexual Harassment at Work: It’s as plain as the nose on your face, isn’t it?

May 10, 2024

The statistics are shocking[1]: almost a third of workers, across a range of sectors from healthcare to HR, have experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour at work with groping, stroking and sexual comments or messages being the most common complaints. Almost half did not report it.

More worryingly, while most respondents said they knew what constituted inappropriate behaviour, around a third thought touching a colleague’s breasts or bum or making sexual comments was OK.

Stigma, fear and lack of reporting mechanisms are but a few of the barriers employers must overcome if they are to both tackle and, from October 2024 when the new proactive duty comes into force, prevent sexual harassment at work. It would also appear that a lack of understanding as to what kind of behaviours constitute sexual harassment is another.

The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the recipient’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Had I not known that one third of people considered touching a colleague’s breast or bum to be acceptable behaviour, I would have (wrongly) assumed that it was a universally held view that this type behaviour fell squarely within the definition of sexual harassment and the very kind of behaviour that needs to be stamped out.

If this statistic reflects the thoughts of all UK workers, those workers in the “OK” camp could be creating problems for employers. For example:

  • Are these workers creating a culture where the norm is offensive jokes, sexual banter and crude conversations? Worst still, if they hold a senior role or a position of authority not only are they helping to create and condone such a culture, they are also sending a clear message to those that do find it offensive ‘like it or lump it’.
  • Where someone is brave enough to complain about what they have experienced or witnessed, how seriously will their complaint be treated? Will they be told they’re too sensitive or will they be perceived as causing trouble? 

The old adage ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ is never truer than in this case. Sexual harassment is, sadly, common and widespread in the workplace, but simply adopting a zero-tolerance policy is of little use if no one truly understands what it is and that what is OK can only ever be considered from the victim’s point of view, not the perpetrator’s. Educating workers is a crucial part in the prevention of sexual harassment.

If you want to learn more about what constitutes sexual harassment and how to prepare for the new proactive duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, join my webinar on Wednesday 22 May 2024. Full details and a link to booking can be found here.

If you have any questions on this or on any other area of Employment law, please get in touch with Blackadders Employment Team, working in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and across Scotland.


[1] Research commissioned by The Barrister Group, 2003

The opinions expressed in this site are of the author(s) only and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Blackadders LLP.

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