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       Hazards, number 145, 2019
#So what? #Me too has exposed a workplace crisis but no-one’s held to account
Why is sexual harassment still a major blight on British workplaces? Because many perpetrators are allowed to get away with it and many employers believe it’s not their problem. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill interviewed two women who spoke out about their experiences and who had to leave their jobs as a result.


Molly Phillips (right) thought at first she had suffered a stroke. When she came round after collapsing at her workplace Christmas party on 1 January 2018, she had no memory of what had happened but was concerned her smile had gone ‘wonky’.

After being cleared in a hospital check-up, the 24-year-old suspected something was amiss and asked to review CCTV footage of the event. What really happened that night at the Cameo Club in Cardiff horrified her (photos, top).

Co-worker Nathan Webb, a 33-year-old chef, had his arm around her neck. At first glance it looked innocuous, but ten seconds later Molly’s arms fell limp at her side. Moments later she fell to the floor. Webb, whose fist could be seen to clench after he put his arm round her, had held her in a choke hold for about 30 seconds.

Feeling unsafe at work, Molly complained to the company’s directors. The firm though dismissed her concerns and continued employing her attacker. Molly felt compelled to leave the job. In December 2018, she obtained a £6,600 constructive dismissal compensation award from bar owner Pontcanna Pub Company Ltd at a Cardiff employment tribunal.

Molly told Hazards she still experiences physical and mental trauma. “I suffer with anxiety and physically it’s affected the way I smile as well. My smile now looks sort of wonky and the doctors have said it is unlikely it will change.”

Keep your mouth shut

Just speaking anonymously to the press about her experience of sexual harassment with a previous employer cost Lizzie Walmsley (right) her new job.

After mentioning her experiences on twitter, the public affairs manager at the Big Lottery Fund told various managers she wanted to give an anonymous interview to the Times.  Following the interview, an email from a senior manager criticised her for lack of judgment in trusting journalists and for breaches of the Big Lottery Fund’s ethics and social media policies.

A subsequent meeting with the same manager saw Lizzie reduced to tears. She said she felt like it was a disciplinary meeting and as if she “was being scolded.” She raised a grievance, but left the job shortly afterwards.

In January 2019, an employment tribunal found the manager’s conduct had been unacceptable and Lizzie was awarded £6,000 in damages against the Big Lottery Fund for “injury to feelings,” plus £483.94 in interest.

Lizzie, who was advised by her union Prospect, said: “I’m so glad this is over and that the tribunal has found in my favour. If we as a society are to eradicate sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour it is vital that women are permitted to speak out about their experiences without fear or retribution and that the law protects us when doing so.”

Knowing isn’t enough

The government’s 18 December 2018 response to a Women and Equalities Select Committee report certainly creates the impression workplace harassment won’t go ignored.  

Announcing measures that include a new code of practice and a commitment to undertake consultations on legal protections from sexual harassment at work, minister for women Victoria Atkins said: “We are taking action to make sure employers know what they have to do to protect their staff, and people know their rights at work and what action to take if they feel intimidated or humiliated. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work.”

But the TUC believes the government plan lacks teeth. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “More than half of women in the UK have been sexually harassed at work, yet only one in five reports it. Sexual harassment has a huge impact on women’s careers and lives. So it’s disappointing that the government is not making the major changes needed for the scale of the problem.”

She said while the government dithers, “unions have been leading the way in tackling sexual harassment.”

MENTAL OUTCOME  Sex discrimination in the workplace has a damaging impact on women’s mental health, a study has found. The researchers examined the associations between workplace sexism, sense of belonging at work, mental health and job satisfaction for women in male-dominated industries. more

Her comments resonate with Lizzie Walmsley. “I can't change that I have been sexually harassed, but I can refuse to stay silent about it,” she said. “I could not be more grateful to Prospect whose unwavering support and advice has brought us to where we are now. Without a doubt, they were integral to this win.”

She told Hazards: “You can’t underestimate the toll on your mental well-being when you’ve experienced something like sexual harassment in the workplace… If we want discrimination to be taken seriously, we need verdicts to lead organisations to learn from their mistakes.”

The authors of a 2018 London School of Economics Business Review report concluded that “working in partnership with local trade unions or worker representatives to address sexual harassment and violence is more likely to bring success than top-down initiatives. Such approaches offer women a protected voice which is the best antidote to the shaming and silencing that comes with sexual abuse.”

Don’t look, don’t find

There’s another barrier to workplace accountability. While there are some albeit flawed mechanisms to get redress for sexual harassment, there is no official agency charged with preventing it.

If someone threatens, abuses or assaults you at work, then the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) sees it as a legitimate workplace inspection, investigation and enforcement issue with both the perpetrator and the employer potentially in the firing line.

ROLE OVER  The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related violence as: Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. This can include verbal abuse or threats as well as physical attacks.” But no regulator takes a preventive role when these abuses are deemed to be sexual harassment.

Unless, that is, the threats, abuse or assaults are considered ‘sexual harassment’. Then HSE steps back, and the job falls to other agencies, principally the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), an organisation with no workplace inspectorate, no preventive inspection system and no health and safety enforcement brief.

The government, introducing its new code, said: “The HSE already works closely with other regulators to promote cooperation, share intelligence and where appropriate, co-ordinate on joint activities. HSE will work with EHRC to consider whether there are any other potential opportunities in this respect.”

It is a type of casual cooperation and intelligence that failed Molly Phillips, who had to be her own investigator, whistleblower and enforcer, and who lost her job into the bargain. Neither her former employer nor her assailant have faced criminal charges for a workplace assault captured on camera.

Molly is currently in the process of a ‘victim’s right to review’ the decision not to prosecute Webb, but feels the system is stacked against justice. It was only in January 2019, a year after she was attacked, Molly found out the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had decided not to pursue charges.

“I didn’t even find out from the police, I found out from a local MP who contacted CPS on my behalf due to the fact that the police ignored all contact from me for weeks on end,” she told Hazards.

Her assailant, meanwhile, has shown no remorse. “He never apologised to me for the incident even though a fellow employee showed him the video and pointed out everything.”

Liability issue

UNISON says this hands-off approach to harassment at work is failing victims, particularly those working with the public. The union wants to see the reinstatement of Section 40 of the Equality Act – a clause that ensured staff doing their jobs were safeguarded against third-party harassment.  Under this clause, employers were liable if they failed to act after two incidents.

However, the Conservative-led government scrapped this ‘three-strikes’ rule in October 2013, saying other laws gave staff similar protection, a claim disputed by UNISON.

The union’s assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said workers “feel they have to put up with the unwanted touching or personal remarks because they’re worried about their job and making a complaint would affect their future.”  She added: “Workplaces should be harassment-free zones. There must be tougher policies, a clearer understanding of what harassment is, and a zero tolerance approach.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said all workers deserve this legal protection. “The law should be changed so that employers are responsible for preventing sexual harassment in workplaces. This would shift the burden of tackling sexual harassment away from the victims. And it would help end toxic workplace cultures that silence those who’ve been harassed.”

Without this accountability and with no legal inspections, investigations or enforcement at work, workplaces are free to remain very intolerant places indeed.

Ask Molly. Ask Lizzie.





Work sexism damages women's mental health

Sex discrimination in the workplace has a damaging impact on women’s mental health, a study has found. The research, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, investigated the associations between workplace sexism, sense of belonging at work, mental health, and job satisfaction for women in male-dominated industries.

The 190 women, all members of a large Australian trade union that represents workers in mainly male-dominated jobs, found “organisational sexism and interpersonal sexism were associated with a poorer sense of belonging in the industry, which was associated with poorer mental health. A poorer sense of belonging also explained the negative effect of organisational sexism on job satisfaction.” The study was conducted with the assistance of the unidentified trade union.

“Strategies that integrate women more thoroughly into male-dominated industries and give them a better sense of belonging may help to increase their mental health and job satisfaction,” said co-author Mark Rubin, an associate professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia. “However, we also need better strategies to reduce sexism in the workplace if we are to tackle this problem at its root.”

The study cites research by the TUC into the impact of sexism in the workplace.

Mark Rubin and others. A confirmatory study of the relations between workplace sexism, sense of belonging, mental health, and job satisfaction among women in male‐dominated industries, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, February 2019. Related project website, including full text of the article. EurekAlert.


Entertainment unions challenge bad practices

Entertainment unions have challenged the industry to ‘change the culture’ and tackle harassment in the creative sector, with many workers saying they fear speaking out. A conference organised by the Federation of Entertainment Union (FEU), as part of its Creating without Conflict campaign against bullying, harassment and discrimination in the media and creative industries, featured the launch of a new FEU equalities e-course and updated guidance.

Sarah Ward, BECTU’s national secretary, said unions had long been aware of the problem and the creative industries had been identified in a TUC report as a ‘hotspot’ for harassment. Isabelle Gutierrez, the Musicians’ Union’s (MU) head of communications, related how she had reported someone for sexual harassment and despite being in a secure job and having the support of her boss it had been a harrowing experience. The perpetrator had appealed and accused her of lying. “Even having support, I ended up on medication and had many sleepless nights. But if it had happened to me, it had probably happened to others and would have gone on happening unless he was stopped,” she said.

NUJ’s Natasha Hirst said as a freelance photographer in a male-dominated world she felt “lucky” to have only experienced sexual harassment a few times. She said: “It is designed to shut down voices. It stifles plurality in the media, prevents the free sharing of information and attacks our democracy. That affects every single one of us, whether we are direct targets of harassment or not.”

She added: “A key message for employers is that trade unions are your allies. Workplace reps have training and resources to support employers to improve workplace culture and meet their duty of care towards staff and freelances who work for them.” Sexual harassment is a health and safety issue; reps had the power to assess the risk to metal health where bullying and harassment is prevalent, she said.

A BECTU survey of over 700 members revealed more than half of women (51 per cent) and a quarter of men (28 per cent) working in creative industries have encountered sexual harassment at work.

The findings, published in January 2019, revealed fear of repercussions and a lack of trust in managers were major barriers to speaking out, with 43 per cent saying they wouldn’t trust managers to deal with an issue and 42 per cent saying they would be concerned about the impact on their career. Workers also harboured fears of damaging their working relationships, being blamed by colleagues and not being taken seriously.


Landmark agreement on hotel harassment

IUF, the global union for the hospitality sector, has signed a landmark agreement with Meliá Hotels International on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. The union federation says it is the first between the IUF and an international hotel chain.

The agreement was signed on in January 2019 by IUF general secretary Sue Longley and Meliá CEO Gabriel Escarrer, as part of the process initiated with the 2013 IUF/Meliá agreement on workplace rights. The new agreement incorporates the ILO definition of sexual harassment, affirms a policy of 'zero tolerance' and commits both parties to develop appropriate local implementation procedures based on a shared recognition of the need “to protect the dignity of everyone who works for Meliá, as well as their rights relating to their physical and moral integrity and non-discrimination.” Progress in implementation will be jointly evaluated on a regular basis, IUF says.

IUF general secretary Sue Longley welcomed Meliá's lead. “Our members have reported that as many as 85 per cent of employees in the hospitality industry have experienced sexual harassment on the job,” she said. “Melia has shown the way forward in an industry increasingly dominated by global brands. We look forward to developing the implementation process through negotiation at global and local level.”

Meliá is the largest hotel chain in Spain and has operations in 41 countries.

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#So what?

Why is sexual harassment still a major blight on British workplaces? Because many perpetrators are allowed to get away with it and many employers believe it’s not their problem. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill interviewed two women who spoke out about their experiences and who had to leave their jobs as a result.

Keep your mouth shut
Knowing isn’t enough
Don’t look, don’t find
  Liability issue

Related stories
Work sexism damages women's mental health
Entertainment unions challenge bad practices
Landmark agreement on hotel harassment

Hazards violence webpage
TUC Know Your Rights leaflet about sexual harassment and guide for union reps.