Law Column: Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace

Q:

I work in a male-dominated office and my immediate senior is male. I have often ignored inappropriate comments or crude emails from my male colleagues. 

I have noticed that some men on my team have been put forward for promotion ahead of me, despite my having longer service and more experience. Recently I approached my manager about this and he called me into his office. 

I felt very uncomfortable as he made some comments that to me felt as though they were of a sexual nature. I said nothing and left the meeting in disgust. He emailed me later that day to tell me that my performance would be under review going forward. 

I feel as though my position within the company is threatened now. I don’t know what to do without making things worse. Should I ignore it?

A:

At the outset, we are very sorry to read this query. It seems as though you have fallen victim to sexual harassment in the workplace. 

This can be very traumatic, on both a personal and a professional level. The abuse of power by a person in a dominant position coupled with the threat to one’s job security and indeed safety makes for a harrowing dilemma. As a result, unfortunately, these complaints often go unreported and unresolved.

The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 prohibits sexual harassment and harassment of an employee. It is important to note that not all sexual harassment is physical. Sexual harassment carries a wide definition and under the Act is defined as any form of “unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature”.

Whether verbal or physical the Act defines the actions as conduct which “has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person”. 

It is also noteworthy that non-physical sexual harassment includes; actions, gestures, written comments and emails.

It is advisable that you write down a clear and detailed account of the history of what happened within the workplace, the inappropriate behaviour and indeed the incident which took place between yourself and your manager in his office. Save copies of any emails and memos of any discussions/phone calls. Going forward, keep a note of how your work environment changes – if it does, and the implications this incident has on your ability to continue your work as before. Document everything.

A complaint may be made to the Workplace Relations Commission. This eliminates the daunting prospect of Court proceedings. 

However, once a complaint has been made, there is a legal requirement that the person or company against whom a complaint is made is notified in writing of the alleged discriminatory act. Therefore it is advisable to speak with a local Solicitor regarding the specific details of your case before making the complaint – given the sensitive nature of your predicament.

Where you are worried about how best to proceed, your Solicitor will be in a position to advise you. You may well be entitled to compensation.  

*Sarah McNulty is an Apprentice Solicitor in Cantillons Solicitors of 38/39 South Mall, Cork an award winning law firm practising in all areas of litigation. Since the firm was founded in 1980, they have been involved in precedent making cases, amongst them Best V. Wellcome, Louise O’ Keeffe v. Ireland and most recently Costello V. HSE, a medical negligence claim in which they achieved damages of €17.8 million, the highest ever award in Irish personal injury litigation to date. Cantillons Solicitors received the award of Munster Law Firm of the Year (Over 5 Solicitors) at the AIB Irish Law Awards 2016.

*This weekly column is a readers’ service and is not intended to replace professional advice.

No individual correspondence will be entered into. Email your queries to legalqueries@cantillons.com

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