What is sexual harassment at work?

How to tell when lines are crossed in the workplace

Picture this - you’ve just started a job as the manager of a new bar. You’re understandably a bit anxious about being the new boss, but a senior colleague seems more than happy to show you the ropes, and you don’t think anything of it – why should you?

Then, slowly you notice this colleague behaving in a way that starts to make you feel a bit uncomfortable – a comment here, a slip of a hand there. But you shrug it off and focus on doing your job - maybe you misunderstood? Until one day, something happens, a line is crossed and you can’t ignore it anymore.

That is the situation that BBC Three’s new social experiment ‘Is This Sexual Harassment?’ seeks to explore. Presenter, Ben Zand, leads an on-screen discussion with a group of around 20 young people about where the line is when it comes to sexual harassment, based on the various scenarios from the drama.

Screen grab of the BBC Three documentary that shows a man leaning over his female colleague.
BBC


Is leaning over someone at work okay? What about complimenting their appearance? Is it ever okay to try to kiss your colleague? Where is the line?

Without giving too much away, the programme shows that despite the impact of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, more awareness is needed about what exactly is sexual harassment in everyday work situations. 

We spoke to the barrister who features in the BBC documentary, Ceri Widdett, who specialises in employment law. She believes that there is a distinct “lack of education around the issue".

“We have got to get young men and women talking about [sexual harassment]," she says. "They really do not know where the line is."

With that in mind, we've created a quiz so you can test how much you really know about sexual harassment. 

But first, how does the law actually define it?

Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature (aka something sexual, or related to your gender), which does any of the following:

Violates your dignity


For some of us, the language ‘your dignity’ might sound old fashioned and a little bit confusing. Having ‘dignity’ basically means being worthy of respect - which legally we are all entitled to be. So if you’re treated in a way that violates your dignity, it’s another way of saying you were, and feel, disrespected. Therefore, in terms of sexual harassment, it means experiencing disrespect because of something sex-related at work.

It's important to note that, whether or not unwanted sexual conduct violates a person’s dignity or creates an offensive environment depends on the victim’s perspective and whether their reaction is reasonable. What this basically means is that an independent party would think that the victim's response is the same as any other 'ordinary person's'.

Makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated


These are feelings that most of us will be able to identify with in some form. But notice, as with the entirety of the definition of sexual assault, the language hinges on how the behaviour ‘makes you feel’, not how the person doing it intends to make you feel.

It doesn’t matter if you meant to sexually harass someone, or thought it was just ‘banter’ - it can still be sexual harassment. Ceri told BBC Three that, “In terms of the law, all we have to do is show the effect of it upon that individual, so it doesn’t matter whether you intended it or not."

Creates a hostile or offensive environment


Nobody wants to work in an environment where they feel uncomfortable, and if your behaviour of a sexual nature is making someone reasonably feel like that, then it’s sexual harassment. If a victim is treated in a way that fits these categories because of their gender, or treated less favourably because they reject or submit to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature – that's sexual harassment. For example, if you were fired because you rejected a colleague coming on to you.

Like with the rest of the definition, to class something as sexual harassment, the behaviour only has to fit into one of these categories, and not all of them. 

So, how big a problem is it in the UK?

A survey in 2017 for BBC Radio 5 Live showed that 53% of women and 20% of men in the UK say they have been sexually harassed at work or a place of study. The survey also showed that 63% of women who said they had been harassed didn't report it to anyone, and 79% of the male victims also kept it to themselves.

How do you know for sure if you've experienced it?


Anyone can experience sexual harassment, regardless of gender or sexuality; the unwanted conduct could be from someone of the same or different sex.

Sexual harassment commonly involves a pattern of inappropriate behaviour, repeated by someone in a workplace, that the victim has asked to stop but continues anyway. However, one-offs can be sexual harassment too, and it doesn't matter if someone else doesn't take something the same way as you do.

Examples of sexual harassment at work can include sexual comments or jokes, unwelcome sexual advances or touching, suggestive looks, staring or leering, intrusive sexual questions, spreading sexual rumours, and sending emails or pictures of a sexual nature.

And who should you tell?


The difficulties in reporting sexual harassment at work are widely documented – as essentially your employer can be liable if your case is proven.

Ceri's advice to anyone who thinks they might have experienced it is to tell someone you trust about what is happening and how it is making you feel, even if you're not ready to make a formal complaint.

Your workplace’s sexual harassment policy should make it clear who to make your complaint to, such as your employer, manager or HR department.

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