A woman has been awarded almost £19,000 after a sexual harassment incident at a work Christmas party left her feeling ‘physically sick’.
Shirley Lyons claimed a colleague from furniture company Starplan had touched her inappropriately, hugged her from behind without her consent and made comments about her breasts – acts rightly declared as unlawful sexual harassment by an employment tribunal.
Furthermore, Lyons said the firm failed to act when she complained about the incident, which took place in December 2017 in Northern Ireland.
According to the proceedings which were first reported by the BBC NI, 60-year-old Lyons, worked as a designer and sales consultant for the firm at the time of the incident.
She was the only female employee, along with six male colleagues, to attend the company's Christmas party.
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Lyons was left "surprised and upset" by her colleague's behaviour, and she complained to her line manager. However, she said that subsequently, she was ignored, subjected to abusive language and intimidating behaviour by several colleagues after making her complaints.
"My workplace no longer felt safe for me and I felt physically sick going into work in the mornings," Lyons was quoted by the BBC.
"I stood up to behaviour that shouldn't be happening in any workplace.
"My manager and my employer totally failed to protect me both from the harassment and from being victimised afterwards.
Lyons felt left with “no option but to resign” and launch tribunal proceedings.
Her complaints of sexual harassment and victimisation were upheld by the employment tribunal, and she was awarded almost £19,000 in compensation.
Starplan told BBC News NI that it regretted "any distress caused to Ms Lyons" and that the company “vehemently opposes any form of harassment.”
Worringly, the tribunal also found that the firm had no "guidelines or instruction for standards of behaviour and the consumption of alcohol for attendees" at the Christmas party.
The prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace
Recent research uncovered that a fifth of people worldwide (21%) have experienced at least one form of violence and harassment at work in their working lifetime. And while the glass-half-fullers among us will find it reassuring that almost 80% of employees haven’t been subjected to this behaviour, even one in five victims is one too many.
This is especially true when you look further into the research, which found that a majority of those who had experienced violence and harassment at work had experienced it multiple times – 61% in instances of psychological harassment, and 56% and 52% respectively for physical or sexual violence and harassment, highlighting a need for a zero-tolerance approach.
The data features in a new report – Safe at Work? Global experiences of violence and harassment – which is based on the 2021 Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll, powered by Gallup. 125,000 people across 121 countries were polled about their experiences of workplace harassment and violence, as well as the nature and frequency of it.
The report also found that, at a global level, men were fractionally more likely to report experience of workplace violence and harassment than women (22% vs 20%), though its nature varies between the sexes. While psychological harassment was found to be the most common form experienced by both men and women, it was found that for a third of women (33%) who had experienced violence or harassment, there was a sexual element (compared with for 15% of men). The survey found that men’s second most common experience was a combination of psychological and physical violence and harassment (accounting for 20% or one in five male experiences), while for women it was sexual violence and harassment.
Employers must be proactive
Speaking previously to HR Grapevine, Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy at Peninsula, pointed out that ultimately it is the responsibility of all employers to take proactive measures to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Sadly, sexual harassment is still a very present issue in many workplaces. In fact, recent research has found that almost three-quarters (72%) of female workers have seen or been subject to inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues in the workplace,” Palmer explained.
“A Worker Protection Bill is currently progressing through parliament which could see a duty placed on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment. While this is something employers should keep an eye on, it’s important to note that under the Equality Act 2010, employers can be held legally responsible if an employee is sexually harassed at work by a colleague if it is found they didn’t take all reasonable steps to prevent this from happening.
“As such, all businesses should pro-actively review their policies on sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace and assess how aware employees are of them.”
Palmer said that, while a robust policy is the first step in preventing misconduct, organisations should also ensure they have a clear, zero-tolerance attitude towards this behaviour. Similarly, workplace training for managers and workers on how to manage, avoid and report inappropriate actions can go a long way in discouraging all forms of sexual harassment in the workplace, as can providing effective support for affected employees.
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Palmer went on: “Earlier this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission teamed up with UK Hospitality to publish a new action plan and checklist for employers, to help them stop sexual harassment in the workplace. This was created following research which found that most hospitality workers have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, and most found it to be a “normal” part of the job in settings where alcohol is consumed.
“Employers in customer-facing sectors should also keep in mind that harassment may come from third parties so take extra steps to minimise the impact this could have on employees. Failure to adequately address inappropriate behaviours and creating a culture which does not facilitate diversity and inclusion can prove detrimental for organisations; those who don’t may risk tribunal claims, high turnover, and reduced productivity.”