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Sexual harassment is no joke

June 10 2006 - New guidelines released by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) are designed to help employers combat the ongoing problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Jean Porcelli's landmark case that established sexual harassment as a form of harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) it remains all too common, says the EOC.

Jean Porcelli, a school science technician working for Strathclyde Regional Council in Scotland, brought her case after experiencing a sustained campaign of harassment from two male colleagues, some of which was sexual in nature. At the time she had no remedy under employment protection legislation, which was narrower than the current Employment Rights Act. Supported by the EOC, she used the SDA to challenge her treatment and ensure that her employer took action to address the workplace culture. She was awarded £3000 compensation in 1986 but continued to experience repercussions from her stand.

The EOC defines sexual harassment as ranging from questions or comments about an individual's sex life, to the display of pornography, to rape and sexual assault. This creates a potentially intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment, which will have an impact on performance. Employers are legally responsible for preventing their staff from being subject to sexual harassment.

EOC research shows that there have been 260 successful sexual harassment cases brought in the last five years, and harassment cases comprise 22 per cent of all successful sex discrimination cases. In addition, it is one of the top five reasons for calls to the EOC helpline.

The EOC is currently working with organizations like the armed forces which have experienced widespread problems of sexual harassment and are taking action to address the problems. Research conducted for the Ministry of Defence and published in 2006 found that sexualized behaviours (jokes, stories, language and material) were widespread in all three armed services. Almost all (99 per cent) of the service women who responded had been in situations in the previous twelve months where such behaviours had taken place, with two-thirds (67 per cent) having had the behaviours directed at them personally and 15 per cent having had a 'particularly upsetting' experience.

Early findings from the EOC's current research, carried out by a team from the Centre for Diversity and Work Psychology, Manchester Business School, suggest that sexual harassment is most common where:

  • there is a major gender imbalance in the workplace;
  • one sex, typically men, hold positions of power and junior roles are held by the other, usually women;
  • there is job insecurity or a new supervisor or manager has been appointed;
  • the leadership style is either too authoritarian or too laissez faire.
  • Unlike Jean Porcelli, many of those who experience harassment leave their jobs, resulting in recruitment costs for employers ranging between £1000 for a manual worker, to £10 000 for a senior manager or director. The EOC guidelines 'Sexual Harassment: Managers' Questions Answered' are intended to help employers prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place and to deal more effectively with it when it does. Among the issues addressed is the need for well-communicated policies, an effective complaints procedure and training to help staff investigate complaints confidentially and compassionately.

    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.

    As our new guidelines show, strong leadership and a few simple steps taken by employers can make all the difference, something that the best employers already recognize. Creating a workplace in which everyone is valued and in which there is no place for bullying or harassment helps to boost morale and productivity, and of course helps to avoid the high costs of tribunal claims."

    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. I hope employers - prompted by the new EOC guidelines - will take a strong leadership role, and in another twenty years time we'll be telling a very different story."

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