Whistleblowing on workplace sexual harassment

  • Louise O’Neill
  • 11 June 2021
  • Blog | Blog

The Institute’s “Speak Out” (available to members via a link on their member homepage), was launched in 2018. The service signposts our members to resources aimed at helping them identify and navigate whistleblowing issues, all through a completely anonymous digital solution. Since its launch, Speak Out has provided members with guidance and support across a range of issues, not only whistleblowing, but the many workplace issues affecting our members. During 2020, the issue of sexual harassment was one of the most searched topics within the service. We are therefore pleased to be able to share this recent blog by Louise O’Neill of Protect, the UK’s whistleblowing charity which addresses this issue.

The #MeToo movement has undoubtedly given courage to many others to come forward and call out unwanted, unwelcome sexual harassment in the workplace. It has also shown the sheer scale of it.

At work, employers have a duty of care or responsibility to look after the wellbeing of their employees. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are liable for acts of sexual harassment by one employee towards another unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent it.

Harassment includes but is not limited to:

  • flirting or making sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance
  • sexually offensive jokes
  • unwelcome sexual advances and touching someone against their will
  • asking questions about someone’s sex life
  • sharing pornographic or sexual images

In the past, sexual harassment was generally considered as an HR issue, that could be dealt with via a formal grievance procedure. However, in many circumstances there can be significant overlap between HR issues and whistleblowing concerns.

Protect’s Legal Director, Sybille Raphael said, “In situations where the sexual harassment is of a group of people, or presents a risk to more than one individual, whistleblowing could be relevant – but  whistleblowing disclosures must have a ‘public interest’ element to be legally protected. Broadly, this means the disclosure is not just in the personal interest of one individual, but in the interests of “the public” or a group of people.

Toxic work cultures and sexual harassment and whistleblowing  is an issue that Protect’s Advice Line has come across, and a case study in Protect’s report Silence in the City 2 highlights a particularly unpleasant example of systemic sexual harassment.

Under the UK’s whistleblowing law, the for a whistleblowing concern to be ‘protected’, an individual first has to raise their concern, by making a disclosure. A disclosure can be made to a line manager, a recognised internal contact, a regulator or even wider.

In relation to sexual harassment wrongdoing may fall into one of the following categories of harm:

  • A breach of a legal obligation, including breaches of the Equality Act 2010
  • A criminal offence, including those under the Protection from Harassment Act 1996 (this requires either two victims or at least two occasions of harassment with one victim)
  • A health and safety risk, including risks to mental health and other physical health risks derived from stress, self-harming and suicide.

In 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission report, ‘Turning Tables, Ending Sexual Harassment in the Workplace set out guidance for employers – but how much has changed?

This article first appeared on protect-advice.org.uk 26th May 2021 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

For readers interested in finding out more, Protect will be running a Masterclass on July 15 aimed at helping employers ensure they know how to support staff whistleblowing about sexual harassment, and how to build a safe culture where all staff can raise concerns about wrongdoing.

For details and booking please use this link: Masterclass: Handling sexual harassment & whistleblowing concerns in the workplace