'Serious harm' | Manager's sexual harassment of male staff highlights an under-reported issue

Manager's sexual harassment of male staff highlights an under-reported issue

A council manager was sacked for sexually harassing three of her male colleagues before making false accusations of being a victim herself, an employment tribunal heard.

As first reported by the Daily Mail, legal documents show that the Westminster City Council worker, who cannot be named for legal reasons, harassed three male colleagues including her manager, causing them “serious harm and distress”.

She would also falsely accuse one of them of sexual assault after he refused her advances – an “unfounded” claim which could’ve potentially cost the man his career, according to the hearing.

The woman displayed a “cyclical pattern of behaviour” and would harass the men persistently despite them being “firm in trying to stop her contact”, a judge heard.

She was suspended from work after two of the men, who are also granted anonymity, complained about her behaviour.

She was later sacked after HR ruled her actions amounted to gross misconduct - but she then claimed she had been sexually harassed by them.

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She tried to sue the council and two of the men she targeted, but her accusations were found to be “malicious and vexatious” and were thrown out. She took the council to tribunal on grounds of unfair dismissal, but her case was not upheld.

Employment Judge Sarah Goodman said: “Her conduct towards (the first man) was more prolonged and more serious.

“She wanted a personal relationship and would not take no for an answer, and then became jealous and unpleasant.

“[There was a] pattern of not letting go of any of the three, even when they were firm in trying to stop her contact, and then being unpleasant.

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“It was clear... that the very serious allegation that (he) was a predator, which could have cost him his job and his career, was unfounded, that her presentation misleading, and that she knew that.

“She was defending [herself] by attacking him, without justification.

“She was not just dismissed because was there a pattern of nuisance behaviour towards male colleagues she took a liking to, which could have been handled another way, she was dismissed for making serious allegations of sexually predatory behaviour, compounded by other vindictive and unnecessary acts.

“The council could have no confidence in her treating her colleagues professionally and with respect, and she had caused them serious harm and distress.”

Preventing sexual harassment

Acas defines sexual harassment as “unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature” and the law protects employees, workers, contractors, self-employed and job applicants from this.

For this to be considered as sexual harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either violated someone’s dignity, whether it was intended or not, or created a hostile environment for them, whether it was intended or not, the governmental body adds.

Data carried out by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) discovered that 52% of women have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work - from groping to inappropriate jokes.

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As such, it is crucial that employers do all that they can to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

In a previous interview, Katie Hodson, Partner and Head of Employment at SAS Daniels LLP, told HR Grapevine that in instances of sexual harassment, employers should have “robust policies in place”.

She previously pointed out that “staff need to be clear that this behaviour is unacceptable and aware of the consequences of breaching the policies. This could be supported by staff training”.

“Further, any and all complaints should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. This would include asking relevant questions and looking at the evidence with a clear and unbiased viewpoint,” Hodson concluded.

Far from just a women’s issue

Statistically, women are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. As a result, the issue of male employees being harassed in the same way is often not as well publicised.

However, data from the Government Equalities Office’s Sexual Harassment Survey in 2020 found that, although it is most likely to affect women, men also experience considerable levels of sexual harassment and sexual harassment behaviours.

Around 34% of men reported that they had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment in the 12 months prior, according to the study.

In the workplace specifically, men were almost as likely to experience workplace harassment as women (the incidence of experiencing harassment was 30% among women and 27% among men).

Furthermore, on average in 2021, the charity ManKind Initiative experienced 23% more calls to their helpline per month and 61% more visitors to their website per month than the previous year.

On its website, Derek Smith Law Group explains: “men may be more fearful of reporting sexual harassment. They may fear that they will be attacked for being weak. They may fear intense retaliation for standing up against the “man’s world” culture that many workplaces try to instil. They may even fear that their families will not believe their story, and they will lose their jobs and their families.”

So, how can firms empower their employees to speak up?

So, it’s evident that many employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up about troubling issues in their place of work.

In fact, almost four million employees across the UK wouldn’t report bullying in the workplace, according to recent research from Culture Shift.

The study revealed that two in five employees have experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination at work, with 42% confirming toxic workplace culture has impacted their mental health.

It’s therefore crucial that HR considers ways to make staff feel more confident about raising their concerns about harassment and bullying.

Culture Shift is encouraging leaders nationwide to protect their people by taking a step towards eradicating problematic behaviours within their organisation.

The theme of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week, which takes place between 14th-18th November, is ‘reach out’ and centres on ensuring people feel empowered to counter the harm and hurt caused by bullying with something positive.

Organisers are encouraging those affected by bullying to ‘reach out’ to someone they trust if they would like to talk, plus ‘reach out’ to anyone they know is being bullied.

Data from Culture Shift has also revealed over one third have felt silenced on issues that matter to them in the workplace and 42% have previously left a job due to negative workplace culture.

Culture Shift data has also revealed 62% of UK employees would be much more likely to report an instance of bullying/harassment if their workplace had an anonymous platform to do so and 31% wouldn't share their concerns in annual employee surveys.

Gemma McCall, CEO, Culture Shift, commented: “The theme of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week is incredibly important and very much aligns with our goal of ensuring those impacted by bullying or harassment have a safe space to speak up and seek support if they wish to do so.

“The data proves problematic behaviour of this nature is still prevalent across our educational institutions and workplaces, and it’s having a huge impact on everything from peoples’ mental health to their general safety and long-term wellbeing. The reality is, more needs to be done to encourage people to speak up and ‘reach out’ – but people need a place they feel comfortable and empowered to do this.”

McCall concluded: “It doesn’t stop at leaders ensuring their organisations have a platform to report anonymously. They also need to be signposting to such platforms, so people are aware of the support systems in place to help them.”

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