What can I do if I am sexually harassed or assaulted at work?

October 5th, 2023

You cannot read this article on the BBC News Online about Royal Artillery Gunner Jaysley Beck without weeping for what she went through, how she suffered and the fact that she thought the only answer was to take her own life. She was 19 years old.  

What has the Army done in response, how has it sought to publicly support her and her family and what pledges has it made towards affecting real change within itself?  Very little seems to be the answer. The identity of the perpetrator appears to have been protected, names in reports have been redacted and the severity and sustained nature of the campaign of sexual abuse Gunner Beck was subjected to, at the hands of a senior officer appears to have been diminished. The Army appears to have tried to portray that the reason Gunner Beck committed suicide was not just related to the trauma and abuse she suffered from sexual harassment but because of family issues. This just seems like an easy excuse. A way for the Army to side-step the blame.

How can it be that a junior woman within the armed forces, who is noticeably distressed and where reports are made of sexual violence committed against her is not sufficiently supported? The young woman was forced to sleep in her car as she was so afraid that the perpetrator would come to her room. Gunner Beck was left fearful and afraid asking friends to stay on the phone with her until she fell asleep. She seems to have had nowhere to turn for help within her ranks. 

A report commissioned after Gunner Beck’s death confirmed that she had no diagnosed mental health conditions and had not sought welfare from anyone in the Army. The inquiry into her death heard evidence from witnesses about inappropriate sexual behaviour by male soldiers towards their female colleagues at Larkhill. It is stated that this is ‘commonplace.’  Apparently measures were introduced in November 2022 to tackle this kind of behaviour and it can only be hoped that they may have some impact.

The family of Gunner Beck have accused the Army of a lack of compassion when they tried to spend time in her room whilst gathering her belongings. They say the Army wanted control over her funeral arrangements. Where is the humanity and the recognition that Gunner Beck should never have been subjected to this heinous behaviour by a senior male colleague? That she has been denied her chosen profession because of it? Have any lessons been learned?  I can only hope that other female officers, who remain within the Army may be better served and protected.

From an employment perspective I have seen too many instances of serious sexual assault at work towards female employees, usually by senior male colleagues. I never envisioned when I started on this career path that I would be representing women who had been raped in the workplace. Often women are too afraid to speak out and are the victims of an almighty cover up. They are forced to leave and face the loss of their careers, just as they are starting out.

The issues that strike me in this case, other than the avoidable death of Gunner Beck are the fact that she had nowhere to go, no-one to turn to as her senior officer was the perpetrator. What happens in this kind of situation and how do you address the imbalance of power? If you cannot speak to your line manager then my advice is to approach HR or perhaps someone else senior in another department. The key is to raise the issue, silence just increases the suffering and allows the perpetrator to get away with their behaviour. It is scary and it is risky but it lifts the lid on the issue. And it may also protect other women from suffering the same abuse at the hands of the same perpetrator.

Any organisation that receives a report of sexual harassment has a duty to act, to investigate and, if the allegations are upheld, to hold the perpetrator to account. Women should feel safe and respected in every workplace and should not have to look behind them when trying to do their job. If an employer gets a suspicion or repeated reports of wrongdoing then they must take action. Burying their heads in the sand is not an option.  

An employer is vicariously liable for the acts of its employees, even during workplace social events. Intoxication is not an excuse. An employee can bring a claim against both their employer and the perpetrator personally.  It can get messy, it may go public and, above all it is damaging for all concerned.

There is absolutely no excuse for sexual misconduct in the workplace in 2023. The duty is on the employer to deal with it and take all reasonable steps to stop it happening again.

This blog was written by Elizabeth McGlone, Partner at didlaw.  

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