How to handle sexual harassment at work

Sexual harassment can range from the quite subtle, when the victim isn’t quite sure whether it is happening or not, to the outrageous. In some respects the subtle behaviour can be more difficult to deal with.

It leaves the victim feeling very uncomfortable but unable to raise it as an issue because it can easily be dismissed as a “misinterpretation”. This can psychologically feel very troubling because they feel they have to put up with it because they cannot prove to others that it is happening and they can start to doubt themselves.

At least if someone has made a direct pass at you, then the intent is clear. Whatever the form the harassment takes, it is very important that the victim makes it clear to the perpetrator that their behaviour makes them feel uncomfortable. As a HR Manager I dealt with several sexual harassment cases and what the harasser routinely says is that they had no idea that their comments or actions were unwelcome.

Harassers are not likely to be the most emotionally intelligent of individuals, so may not be as keyed up about personal space, boundaries or pick up signs of discomfort. This means that you have to be explicit with them about what they are doing that is inappropriate. Laughing nervously, ignoring their comments may not be sufficient to warn them that if they don’t stop it, you are likely to lodge a grievance.

The formal grievance route is one that you can take – but as the Lord Rennard case shows, this is not always an easy one. Employers have a duty of care to their staff and can be taken to court if they fail in this duty. Quite rightly, in the Lord Rennard case, blame has been apportioned not just to the perpetrator, but to those who are accused of failing to see that this was addressed properly. If organisations see that there are reputational risks to their own companies in allowing this type of behaviour to continue, then we may start to see fairer treatment and outcomes for those who have
suffered sexual harassment.

However, there is usually a power imbalance in harassment cases, so complaining about your boss or other influential figure, can be high risk as management may decide that much as they would like to do right by you, they might prefer to lose you rather than a more senior member of their team. Even if they tackle the problem directly, relationships usually become unworkable – and it is most often the victim who ends up leaving, as the harasser is at best given a quiet word in their ear, counselling support or sent on a course to hopefully change their behaviour.

If it’s a job you really enjoy and your boss’s behaviour while bad, doesn’t cause you emotional distress, then you may find that you are able to put up with it and keep them at bay with good humour and challenging them where necessary. However, if you find that your boss’s behaviour is causing you considerable stress, then unless you are prepared to deal with the stress and uncertain outcomes from raising a grievance, start dusting off your CV and looking for your next job.