Few people would argue that the Internet has shaped and transformed the 21st century. From shopping to researching, healthcare to defence, the online world has changed almost every aspect of our lives; sometimes for the better, and occasionally for the worse. It has long been recognised that many school children are tormented by online bullies. Home used to be a safe haven but thanks to the Internet, tormentors can pursue students at home. And following the surge in homeworking, driven by the Coronavirus pandemic, a new study shows that those suffering from workplace sexual harassment are also now having to deal with such behaviour inside their own four walls.
A recent survey by the Rights of Women charity lays bare the extent of the online sexual harassment problem. It shows:
- “45% of women experiencing sexual harassment, reported experiencing the harassment remotely, i.e. sexual messages (e.g. email, texts, social media); cyber harassment (e.g. via Zoom, Teams, Slack etc); and sexual calls.
- 42% of women experiencing sexual harassment at work have experienced some to all of the harassment online.
- 23% of women who have experienced sexual harassment reported an increase or escalation whilst working from home, since the start of lockdown (23rd March 2020).”
Furthermore, 72% of women do not feel that their employer is doing enough to combat online sexual harassment. A hospital worker spoke of her experience, stating:
“As the pandemic was declared, all attention was diverted in managing clinical pressures and needs as I work in a hospital. This meant an investigation was not started for months. In the meantime, I felt unprotected as there was no system in place to remove the harasser from the department whilst an investigation was pending. …There is no policy in this mammoth organisation that addresses sexual harassment.”
Deeba Syed, Senior Legal Officer, Rights of Women, said:
“These statistics echo what women have been telling us already, sexual harassment at work happens online as well as in-person. Although more women are working from home, online sexual harassment has increased and women continue to suffer sexual harassment despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Women working from home have seen their harassers take to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, social media, messages, and phone calls, to continue the torrent of abuse.”
For employers, protecting employees from online sexual harassment presents yet another challenge that must be addressed. Failure to do so could result in expensive, stressful, and reputation damaging Employment Tribunal claims.
What are employers’ duties regarding workplace sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. Sexual harassment can arise where there is:
- Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for the victim.
- Less favourable treatment – this may occur because of the victim’s rejection or submission to the conduct as described above.
Employers have a duty to prevent workplace sexual harassment not only at the workplace premises but also at work-related events such as Christmas parties and on social media.
To protect their employees and commercial reputations, employers must take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. Doing so may also act as a defence should an employee bring a sexual harassment claim against them. Examples of ‘reasonable steps’ include creating a well-drafted sexual harassment policy and ensuring that policy is well communicated throughout the business. It is also important to have training in place to help managers spot signs of harassment (both in person and online) and appoint one or two people to act as a safe person to go to if an employee wants to talk about concerns regarding a colleague’s behaviour. An alternative is to publicise details of an outside organisation that can provide a confidential person to talk to.
Talk to an Employment Solicitor regarding sexual harassment
In this age of #MeToo, employers must be vigilant in their anti-sexual harassment policies and procedures. If you have received a complaint about online sexual harassment, speak to an experienced Employment Law Solicitor about the best way to manage the situation. The initial steps you take in handling a sexual harassment claim can make a significant difference as to whether an Employment Tribunal claim is brought.
If you would like to discuss any of the above issues, please contact Susan Bernstein, Employment Partner on 020 8349 5480 or by email.