What to do if you experience sexual harassment in the workplace

In the wake of Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin speaking out about her experience of sexual harassment in UCD and the process of making a complaint, we spoke to industry professionals about how workplace complaints are dealt with in Ireland
What to do if you experience sexual harassment in the workplace

Ireland has the highest level of claimed sexual harassment in Europe - and is among the worst in the world. File picture: EnergePic/Pexels

Sexual harassment in a workplace is in the news this week after it was revealed academic Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin was targetted by a colleague for two years.

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin, an assistant professor in UCD, described the ordeal in an in-depth interview in the Irish Times at the weekend, detailing a number of interactions between herself and a male professor over a two-year period between 2015 and 2017.

Prof Hans-Benjamin Braun, 58, was charged with harassment late last year and barred from contacting Dr Ní Shúilleabháin for five years.

She said the experience left her living in fear and she hopes her story will draw attention to the harassment of female university academics and students on university campuses in Ireland.

Sexual harassment is, unfortunately, not unknown in both work and college environments here.

A survey of almost 31,000 people across 40 countries published last year by market research and polling giant WIN International found Ireland has the highest level of claimed sexual harassment in Europe - and is among the worst in the world.

It found that 32% of women aged between 18 and 34 have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months - the second highest out of all 40 countries surveyed and the worst in Europe. Only Mexico fared worse at 43%. Ireland's rate of claimed sexual harassment among women in this age group was double that of the United Kingdom and more than twice the global average.

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin has since said she would have liked more support and encouragement from UCD to make a formal complaint.

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin has spoken out about the harassment she encountered while working in UCD. Picture: Sasko lazarov/RollingNews.ie
Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin has spoken out about the harassment she encountered while working in UCD. Picture: Sasko lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Louisa Meehan, President of Network Ireland, said those who find themselves in a similar situation to Dr Ní Shúilleabháin would benefit from a support network so they don’t feel isolated.

“Aoibhinn’s been incredibly brave in telling her story and we hope it encourages others to seek help if they find themselves in a harassment situation,” she said.

“Many of Network Ireland's members are leaders in their businesses and someone in that role might find it hard to speak up, believing they should be 'able to handle' these situations.

“We always tell our members that nobody has the right to make you feel uncomfortable at work, no matter your position in the organisation. The supports are there - you can speak to your HR team in an organisation but it is often even more important to have a strong network of supporters behind you like in Network Ireland.” 

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin was critical of UCD’s policies and protocols and said she hopes new policies are victim-centred.

The National Women's Council (NWC) is also among those praising Dr Ní Shúilleabháin for speaking out and the organisation’s Violence Against Women Officer said the academic has shone a light on many issues surrounding how sexual harassment claims are dealt with in Ireland.

“NWC has been aware that Ireland lags behind other countries when it comes to address sexual harassment in the workplace,” said Dr Hayley Mulligan.

“NWC is deeply concerned that many workplace policies and practices do not even include specific sexual harassment policies. Instead, sexual harassment is often 'dealt with' under other generic policies such as 'Dignity and Respect' or 'Workplace Bullying'.

Sexual harassment is a very particular type of abusive behaviour that, at its core, it deeply gendered. Every workplace needs specific, trauma-informed policies to address all instances of sexual harassment. Employers and workplaces must recognise and take seriously the harmful effects that workplace sexual harassment has on the lives and careers of women.

“There is an urgent need for specific sexual harassment policies and resourced specialist supports to help people navigate their way through such policies and to deal with the personal effect the abuse has had on them.” 

The NWC launched a free employment law advice clinic for women and with the information gathered there, the organisation said it will develop a Charter for Working Women to be used as an advocacy and lobbying tool to strengthen safeguards for working women and to challenge discrimination in the workplace.

Examples of sexual harassment may include unwelcome touching or other physical contact, sexual jokes and comments, leering and staring, and criminal offences such as obscene phone calls, indecent exposure and sexual assault. It can be written, verbal or physical and it can happen to men and women.

Keep a record of what happened, including anything you have said or did to stop the behaviour. The record can be used to make a formal complaint to gardaí.

Find out what your employer’s workplace policy is on sexual harassment. It should guide you on how to report it and deal with it.

Report the behaviour to your workplace’s Human Resources department or your employer. They might assist you in resolving the problem without a formal complaint.

To make a complaint, Citizens Information and the HSE offer the following guidelines:

  • Make it very clear to the person concerned that you find their behaviour, conduct or material is unacceptable and offensive. This can be done on your behalf by a friend, a colleague, a designated person at work or a trade union representative.
  • Keep a record of what happened, including anything you have said or did to stop the behaviour. The record can be used to make a formal complaint to gardaí.
  • If the harassment continues, you may need to make a formal complaint. Your employer’s workplace policy on sexual harassment should guide you on how to report it and deal with it.
  • If you feel that your complaint about harassment has not been dealt with properly by your employer, you can make a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission under employment equality legislation using an online complaint form available on workplacerelations.ie.
  • If the person harassing you is your employer and they do not stop, you should get outside support.
  • Complaints under the Employment Equality Acts must be brought within six months of the last act of harassment or increased to 12 months if “reasonable cause” for the delay can be shown.

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