What to do if you are sexually harassed at work

Four out of five workers experiencing sexual harassment at work do not report the incident to their employer, writes Colette Sexton


While the world is beginning to recognise how serious sexual harassment is, it can still be a very lonely place for victims. 

Four out of five workers experiencing sexual harassment at work do not report the incident to their employer, according to a new survey from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Many people have no idea what to do if they are the victim of sexual harassment, and some of them find it hard to admit to themselves when they are a victim, let alone to discuss it with anyone else. This is particularly true in the workplace, where people do not want to get a “reputation” for complaining. However, if you are being subjected to sexual harassment at work, it is important to speak up, even though it might be difficult to do so. 

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Eilis Barry, the chief executive of FLAC, an independent human rights organisation dedicated to the realisation of equal access to justice for all, said that if someone is sexually harassed at work, their response should depend on the nature of the harassment. 

She said: “If the sexual harassment is of a minor nature you should make clear that the behaviour is unwanted. If the behaviour is more serious or minor unwanted behaviour is repeated despite the harasser having been told that it is unwanted, the employee should look to see what policies and procedures that the employer has in place to deal with the issue and then follow these procedures.”

It is important that you make a note or record detailing each incident, including as much information as possible including the date, time, and what occurred. If you are a member of a union, reach out to them. They are there to help and advise you. 

If the harassment constitutes an assault, then you should contact the Gardaí and the Rape Crisis Centre. 

If your complaint or concerns have been dismissed by your boss or HR manager, Eilis said to again look to the policies and procedures that are in place in your work and try and comply with them. If possible and practicable, complain to your boss’s superior or the superior of the HR manager.

She said: “If you are getting nowhere, you can refer a claim under the Employment Equality Acts to the Workplace Relations Commission. You should make the claim within six months of the last incident of harassment.”

If you decide to escalate the matter, you can make a claim under the Employment Equality Acts to the Workplace Relations Commission. It is likely that you will be offered mediation however there is no obligation to agree to mediation.

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Eilis said: “The hearings before the WRC are in private and the names of the parties will be anonymised. The hearings tend to be less formal than in traditional courts but fair procedures have to be applied. The maximum compensation payable is two years’ salary.”

She added: “An employee has the option of bringing a complaint to the Circuit Court where there is no limit on the potential compensation. Employees tend to prefer the more anonymised less formal hearing before the WRC, though some employees have obtained good settlements of claims brought to the Circuit Court.”

However, Eilis pointed out that victims of discrimination are unable to claim legal aid as it is not available in claims before the WRC. FLAC has campaigned on this issue for a number of years.

She said: “FLAC has particular concerns that legal aid is not available for claims of discrimination including sexual harassment claims, before the WRC, no matter how complex the issue may be, no matter how vulnerable the employee may be, and no matter how well resourced the employer may be.” 

FLAC recently held a conference on the potential of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 47 of the Charter provides that “Legal aid shall be made available to those who lack sufficient resources in so far as such aid is necessary to ensure effective access to justice.” 

She added: “FLAC contends that the failure to provide legal aid in claims of sexual harassment may be in breach of the EU Charter.”

Photography by Annie Spratt.

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