From Hollywood to the Houses of Parliament: sexual harassment is the worst-kept secret
Sexual harassment allegations surrounding film industry megastars such as Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck and Harvey Weinstein, show that years of ignorance, secrecy, and cover-ups have been accepted as part of normal life in Hollywood.
This trend has recently been reflected within the UK Parliament and may be reflected in workplaces everywhere if appropriate preventative measures are not taken.
Sexual harassment, regardless of where it takes place, is a form of discrimination under the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976. It consists of "unwanted conduct that is related to sex and has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment". This definition covers a vast range of behaviour and its subjective nature means that which would be described as "harmless flirting" or "office banter" may not be as innocent as those participating think.
The root of the problem could be a power imbalance.
Those at the top think they can manipulate and control their subordinates, as to complain is to endanger your advancing up the career ladder.
For example, Bex Bailey, a Labour activist, has stated that she was warned by a senior labour party official if she spoke out about her alleged rape, then it could damage her career.
The prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, in this day and age, is astonishing. The UK Trade Union Congress and Everyday Sexism Project conducted research which found that over half of women experience unwanted sexual behaviour at work; including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes. However, despite archaic misconceptions that sexual harassment is only directed towards women, it can be directed towards people of the same sex, as evidenced by the Kevin Spacey allegations in particular.
One thing is clear - change is necessary. Both the Labour and Conservative party have recently circulated sexual harassment policies but these lack the necessary independent aspect essential for any real change to be achieved.
Theresa May has confirmed the need to "establish a House-wide mediation service complemented by a contractually binding grievance procedure available for all MPs irrespective of their party".
However, all employers need to be alive to the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace, what can be done to avoid it, and what ought to be done when an issue arises.
Employers should ensure that all employees, not just management, have received adequate training and are aware of what conduct is acceptable and, more pertinent, what is not.
They should have Dignity at Work and Harassment policies, and a grievance procedure so that complaints can be dealt with correctly and efficiently, and, if necessary, independently.
Ultimately, employers should be mindful of the duty of care that they owe to all staff but also ensure that said staff are aware that colleagues are to be treated with dignity and respect.
To allow low-level sexual harassment to go unnoticed creates a culture of acceptance - but as the recent media reports demonstrate, enough is enough.
- Toni Fitzgerald-Gunn is a solicitor in Worthingtons Commercial Solicitors, Belfast, where she specialises in Employment Law and can be contacted on 028 9043 4015 or firstname.lastname@example.org