An ex-RAF servicewoman’s sexual harassment at the hands of her boss was so bad that she locked herself in a work toilet to escape it, according to an investigation by the BBC.
The former Royal Air Force worker, who was given the pseudonym Grace, told the national broadcaster that she left the armed forces because her treatment had left her feeling “scared to go to work”.
She raised complaints about her superior but, in a harrowing twist, it was she who was sanctioned by the RAF – a decision the Ministry of Defence has since admitted was a case of victimisation.
Grace felt she had ‘no option but to leave’ the air force following her treatment and subsequent complaint process, and even discouraged other young women from joining the air force.
“Constant explicit sexual remarks and comments directed towards me within the workplace" from her male boss were among the principal reasons why Grace felt compelled to quit, she told the BBC.
She explained: "There was really graphic questioning about how I would engage in sexual activities. I can remember on a couple of occasions going into the toilet and locking myself in to stop myself from being alone in a room with that person.”
Her formal complaint over the harassment was found proven and upheld by the RAF.
"It wrecked my mental health," she said of the debacle, adding: "I'd have panic attacks because I was so scared to go into work. It shatters your feeling of safety in work."
Another former RAF servicewoman Jennifer, also told the BBC how her military career came to an end after she reported inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues, including “lewd comments [that] were being made about females on the squadron.
She raised formal complaints over alleged harassment, but the RAF did not uphold her claims, and she subsequently quit the forces.
"The part which made me feel most unsafe is how my reports were totally rubbished,” she said, adding: “everything was turned back on me, as the person who raised the report. Everything was my fault, or I'd perceived it wrong.
“If you raised a complaint you were seen as a trouble-maker, you started to have your work discredited. They closed ranks around you. I was just following procedures in the air force for when things aren't right."
Grace added: "'The complaints process was the worst part for me. And I wouldn't wish that on anyone. I didn't feel like I had any other option but to leave."
An air force spokesperson said: "Any evidence of unacceptable behaviours anywhere in the RAF will be thoroughly investigated. Where appropriate, we will not hesitate to use the most severe sanctions available to deal with those whose behaviour harms others."
They added the Ministry of Defence was "committed to providing a fair, efficient and effective service complaints system and there has been significant progress made to improve its performance, with a particular focus on the efficiency of the system, ensuring complaints are dealt with outside an individual's chain of command and improving the support available".
One in three experience sexually inappropriate behaviour from colleagues but many are too scared to report it, research shows
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. 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.”
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.”
What procedures should you follow?
The impending implementation of the Worker Protection Act, which is scheduled to take effect in October 2024, will place more responsibility on employers to ensure a safe workplace free from sexual misconduct.
In a situation where an allegation is expressed, employers should have a grievance and anti-bullying and harassment policy in place, as a minimum, to help them respond to complaints.
Paul Kelly, Partner and Head of Employment law at Blacks Solicitors, comments: These policies are key to ensure employees know what to do when they witness or experience sexual harassment in the workplace and managers know how to handle complaints. In terms of responding to complaints, the key is to carry out a thorough investigation. Employers should first start by talking to the employee who has reported the incident.
“Listen to their story, be empathetic towards them and keep an open mind. It’s important to be impartial and gather all the facts including when, what, where and who to assist, and then carry out further investigations to understand what has happened and if disciplinary action is necessary. Given the seriousness of the complaint, it is usually appropriate to treat the complaint as a grievance if the employee has not indicated this or alternatively ask the employee if they wish to raise a formal grievance and how they would like the complaint to be dealt with.”