'I can't handle it' | Woman's death after relentless sexual harassment from boss highlights need for proactive HR measures

Woman's death after relentless sexual harassment from boss highlights need for proactive HR measures

A teenaged soldier is believed to have taken her own life after relentless sexual harassment by her immediate superior that saw her receive thousands of messages in the space of two months, according to the findings from an army investigation.

Royal Artillery Gunner Jaysley Beck died at Larkhill Camp, Wiltshire, in December 2021. A probe found the 19-year-old had suffered “an intense period of unwelcome behaviour” which was “almost certain” to have been a causal factor in the tragedy.

The inquiry conducted by the Army Personnel Services Group found that Beck had received more than 1,000 WhatsApp messages and voicemails from a superior at Larkhill Camp, in October 2021.

The report explained that the unnamed superior was attempting to pursue a relationship with Beck, who did not reciprocate his feelings due to having a boyfriend.

However, undeterred, they increased the number of messages to more than 3,500 in the following month.

Beck would later tell the man: "I can't handle it any more. It's weighing me down."

The report stated: “Whilst this behaviour ended the week before her death, it appears that it continued to affect her and had taken a significant toll on her mental resilience and well-being.”

The report said Beck had no diagnosed mental health conditions and had not sought welfare support from the army. It also clamed a family bereavement contributed - something that Beck’s family rejected.

An inquest date has not yet been set to determine the full circumstances of Beck’s tragic death.

‘Not enough change’

Chair of the Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, Sarah Atherton MP, said: “My sympathies are with the family of Gunner Beck – her death is a tragedy. We await news of a date for the inquest into her death.

“The Defence Committee made a series of recommendations to Government in 2021 to improve its handling of unacceptable behaviour, most of which the Ministry of Defence officially accepted.

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“We now want to understand whether there has been enough change in practice over the last two years. We will hold a public evidence session with the MOD in November.

“To inform our session, we are seeking evidence from servicewomen (with approval from the MOD) and recent female veterans, in relation to their experiences since our Women in the Armed Forces Report was published in 2021. I would encourage all those wishing to share their experiences of Armed Forces culture over the last two years to come forward and share their evidence with the Committee.”

Third of workers experience sexually inappropriate behaviour from colleagues but many are too scared to report it, research shows

The tragic case of Miss Beck represents the most horrendous and extreme results that inappropriate behaviour from co-workers can have, and it’s only right that calls are being made for a major review into policies within the Armed Forces to protect people from such conduct.

And of course, sexual harassment and unsolicited behaviour from colleagues is an issue that all good HR leaders will have their eye on, for almost a third of people have experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour at work.

However, HR can’t afford to simply be reactive in these situations. As the report mentioned, Beck has reportedly not sought help from the army. That is simply not an excuse that leaders can use. Proactive measures are vital, especially when considering new research which shows that only half of victims feel confident enough to report it to their bosses.

Groping, stroking, inappropriate comments and threats that it would harm their career if they did not return sexual advances were among the unwanted attention received, mostly from senior colleagues.

Victims described feeling violated, intimidated, ashamed, degraded and scared, but many chose to stay silent rather than report it for fear they would be treated negatively as a result.

The research, commissioned by The Barrister Group, reveals the true extent of the toxic cultures that still exist in many workplaces, an issue highlighted by a number of recent celebrity scandals.

The study of over 2,000 UK workers, evenly split by gender, found that 29% had been a victim of sexually inappropriate behaviour from a colleague. Almost one in three women (31%) were affected, compared to one in four men (26%) and 69% said the perpetrator was someone more senior.

Almost half (48%) did not report the matter and of those who did, many said they felt awkward, isolated, were accused of overreacting and, in 12% of cases, forced to find another job.

The main reasons for staying silent included fears that they wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously, and even that they would be blamed.

Dr Anna Loutfi, an employment barrister and part of The Barrister Group, said: “For many of us, the #MeToo movement felt like a watershed moment which started a wider conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, not just for women and not just at work.

“The fact that sexual harassment is still so prevalent in the workplace is hugely disappointing.

“Recent celebrity scandals may have heightened public awareness of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, but the reality seems to be that far too many people are still putting up with it for fear that they will be seen as the problem rather than the perpetrator.

“That is fundamentally wrong and must be addressed.”

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Worryingly, although most people claimed they knew what constituted inappropriate behaviour, a third didn’t think touching someone’s breasts, slapping their bum or making sexual comments about their appearance was wrong. Women were quicker to call this out than men.

Further, a third (34%) of workers believed their bosses were complicit and happy to look the other way anyway, while a quarter (23%) described their workplace culture as sexist or misogynistic. Less than two-thirds (61%) said their employer had a policy in place to deal with sexually inappropriate behaviour.

Dr Loutfi added: “It is surprising that so many people still don’t recognise that certain behaviours are wrong, and, for the avoidance of doubt, employers should have clear policies in place.

“There is obviously a distinction between what is unlawful and what is inappropriate, but both are unacceptable in the workplace.
“Employers have a legal duty of care and employees have a right to expect that they will not be made to feel uncomfortable, intimidated or violated in the course of their work.

“There needs to be a culture of openness and transparency, where employees feel empowered to report inappropriate behaviour and are confident that when they do they will be supported and the necessary action will be taken.”

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