Employers obliged to curb sexual harassment

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Bosses who fail to protect female staff from the unwanted advances of their male colleagues face prosecution under new EU laws.

Britain has now agreed, along with other European countries, to ban sexual harassment at work, including persistent sexist remarks and groping colleagues.

The new law, which applies to all firms with more than 20 staff, was passed last week despite attempts by the British government to block it. This means employers are now liable to a fine or court hearing if they fail to provide a discrimination-free workplace.

Sexual harassment resides in one of the most highly fraught zones of contemporary life, not only because it concerns sex, lies and politics, but also because it most often rests on the nightmare issue of testimonial: the word of one against another. It inhabits the territory of confusing cultural change; the boundaries between morality and law. Some men see sexual harassment ­ and the publicity given to the rare but huge amounts of compensation, such as £1m awarded last year to the City banker Kay Swinburne ­ as yet another tool in the hands of vindictive females turning society into a politically correct prison for the terrorised male.

The chief executive of Ireland's state-owned airline, Aer Lingus, Michael Foley, 53, was sacked last week after only six months in the job, accused of sexual harassment. He was suspended a month ago while the company investigated claims that he had propositioned one female employee and touched another. Foley maintains his innocence and says he is the victim of a "lethal conspiracy because the company wants to get rid of me". The women, Joan Loughnane and Anne Lawlor, stand by their allegations. Foley has vowed to clear his name.

The problem is that what some profess to be fun and games, others regard as personally distressing; an abuse of power and a form of economic intimidation. Linda Sohawon, head of legal services at the white-collar union MSF, says that women (in 85 per cent of cases the complainant is female) may become "traumatised, ill and downtrodden" as a result of persistent harassment and often leave their job without taking action. "Even if the harasser is disciplined, it frequently amounts to a slap on the wrist followed by promotion, while the woman eventually leaves anyway, worn down by the strain."

The EU defines sexual harassment as "unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or other conduct based on sex, affecting the dignity of women and men at work". Marisa Howes, women's officer of Unison, simplifies the definition still further. "We ask if it's behaviour the individual would like to see inflicted on his wife, sister or daughter."

Harassment can include suggestive remarks; leering looks; unwelcome touching; direct propositions; or, in extreme cases, assault and rape. An as yet unpublished survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission reveals stomach-turning crudity that is impossible to misread as a compliment. One employer asked if he could sniff his employee's crotch. Another left a bloody tissue on the floor, asking the employee if it was her sanitary protection.

One EU survey two years ago indicated that 54 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. A survey conducted in 1993 by Unison indicated that harassment is as prevalent in female-dominated industries as it is in male. In both, it is rarely reported. Yet 80 per cent of companies say they have a policy on sexual harassment.

Using the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, women (and men) can bring a case to an industrial tribunal where proof has to be established "on the balance of probabilities". Serious cases go to court where proof required is "beyond reasonable doubt".

Angela Ishmael of the Industrial Society and the author of several books on sexual harassment, wants more responsibility placed on managers who fail to act when a complaint is made. "In the 1970s, women accepted harassment as part of their existence as employees," she says. "In 2001, they are aware that it is simply not acceptable."