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Sexual harassment at work

Sexual harassment is any form of unwelcome sexual attention you find offensive, humiliating or intimidating.

feet with shadowWhen it happens at work, it can put you in a really awkward and upsetting situation.

It can be written, verbal or physical. Both men and women can experience it.

Sexual harassment in the media

The second half of 2017 produced new sexual harassment stories in the media, nearly everyday.

What these stories illustrate most frequently is how common it is, how damaging it can be to those on the receiving end of it and how the power dynamic in different workplaces potentially hid these actions in plain sight.

The fact is everyone has a right to work in an environment free from harassment of any kind.

Sexual harassment can include:

  • unwelcome touching, grabbing or other physical contact
  • comments that have sexual meanings
  • asking for sex or sexual favours
  • leering and staring
  • displaying rude and offensive material
  • sexual gestures and body movements
  • sexual jokes and comments
  • questions about your sex life
  • sex-based insults
  • criminal offences such as obscene phone calls, indecent exposure and sexual assault.

How sexual harassment affect you

Sexual harassment can be an incredibly stressful experience. How do you draw the line between what’s OK and what’s not?

If someone’s behaviour is making you uncomfortable, it can be hard to know what to do about it, without making the situation awkward.

There’s always the worry people will think you’re over-reacting or that you’ll even jeopardise your job for making a fuss. It’s just a laugh, right?

However, the effects of sexual harassment can be pretty serious and include:

  • feeling stressed, anxious or depressed
  • wanting to stay away from work
  • feeling unable to trust your employer or the people you work with
  • lacking confidence and self-esteem in yourself and your work
  • having physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, backaches, sleep problems
  • having your life outside of work affected, eg study, relationships
  • being less productive and unable to concentrate.

Your rights

No one deserves or asks to be sexually harassed. It’s not that much to ask for, in fairness.

Everyone has the right to work in an environment free from harassment, bullying, discrimination and violence.

The Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2004 deal with discrimination within employment.

The acts prohibit sexual harassment and harassment of an employee (including agency workers or vocational workers) in the workplace or in the course of employment.

What you can do if you’ve experienced sexual harassment

  • You might be able to resolve the situation quickly yourself by explaining to the person who is harassing you their behaviour is unwanted.
  • Make sure you’re informed. Find out the organisation’s policies and procedures for preventing and handling sexual harassment. Most companies take this issue very seriously.
  • Keep a diary documenting everything that happens, including what you’ve done to try stopping it. This can help if you make a complaint.
  • Get external information and advice, eg from the Equality Authority. The Equality Authority has a general remit to promote equality and can give advice and, in some cases, legal assistance if you wish to bring a claim of harassment under the Employment Equality Acts.
  • Tell someone. The person to talk to might be a Human Resource Manager. It there isn’t one you should report it directly to your employer, a supervisor/manager or health and safety representative (if your work has one). This situation might be able to be resolved informally, without any official complaint being made.
  • If the situation continues or is serious, you might need to make a formal (written) complaint that follows company policy. The person sexually harassing you might be officially warned, and required to have counselling. If the sexual harassment continues, there might be a mediation process. If all else fails, the person sexually harassing you might be fired.
  • If the person doing the sexual harassing is your employer or they do not do anything to stop it, it’s important you get outside support and advice.

Remember, it’s your right to be protected at work.

This article was last reviewed on 11 December 2017

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