Hope for the sexually harassed

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The Independent Online
MARIANNE is an intelligent, hard-working and committed employee. Her problem is that her superior, Charles, selected Marianne at the interview not because of her initiative and industry but her looks.

Viewers of Channel 4's soap opera Brookside have witnessed in recent months a steady escalation in Charles's subtle and then not-so-subtle sexual harassment. The story is based on true-life case studies provided by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

A recent survey of more than 1,700 employees by the Industrial Society showed that over 50 per cent of working women suffer sexual harassment. It can take a variety of forms - unwelcome sexual attention, suggestive behaviour or, as in Marianne's case, suggestions that sexual favours may further her career and refusal damage it.

According to the Industrial Society's survey, sexual harassment can be 'one of the most upsetting, humiliating and destructive experiences that can happen to an employee'. Victims' judgement and concentration usually suffer.

Brookside viewers saw Marianne suffer a loss of confidence as she started to believe that Charles was less interested in her ability than in the possibility of getting her into bed.

The European Commission and the Department of Employment have produced codes to deal with the problem. The department's code points out that 'policy on sexual harassment should be a normal part of good personnel and resource management'. The code stresses the importance of defining harassment and establishing a complaints procedure, as well as ensuring that the policy is implemented and communicated to all employees. The need for training to help identify harassment and to monitor policies designed to prevent it is also recognised.

Employees are afforded some protection against sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA) and under the EC Equal Treatment Directive. But sexual harassment is not defined in the SDA.

The employee must show less favourable treatment on the grounds of sex. In an important Scottish Court of Appeal case, it was decided that a woman who complained of sexual harassment had suffered unlawful sex discrimination. To be successful under the SDA, the worker must show that the harassment has caused disadvantage - resignation, depression or a transfer request will usually satisfy this requirement.

Under the SDA, employers are liable for their employees' actions - even where the harassment occurs without the employer's knowledge or approval.

An employer can only escape liability if it can be shown that reasonable steps were taken to avoid the harassment occurring.

Until recently, claims for sex discrimination were subject to a maximum award of pounds 11,000, but a recent case in the European Court of Justice has ruled that the pounds 11,000 limit should no longer apply to claims brought by public body employees. It is likely that the Government will amend the law in this respect to benefit private sector employees as well.

Employers face additional potential exposure. Employees who are sexually harassed may also have claims for unfair dismissal if they feel compelled to resign because the employer fails to investigate a complaint of sexual harassment adequately. A resignation in these circumstances will be treated as a de facto dismissal.

Employees alleging sex discrimination should bring claims to the Industrial Tribunal within three months of the date on which the alleged act occurred. In the case of unfair dismissal, claims must be submitted within three months of the date on which the employees choose to treat themselves as having been dismissed.

It appears employers are taking the issue of sexual harassment more seriously. According to a survey of 132 employers carried out by the Industrial Relations Service, there is a growing trend to introduce policies to deal with sexual harassment.

The survey found more employers introduced policies between 1990 and 1992 alone than had introduced policies during the whole of the 1980s.

(Photograph omitted)