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Dealing with sexual harassment when you’re self-employed

5-minute read

Yasmine Mustafa

Yasmine Mustafa

19 October 2021

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Here Yasmine Mustafa, CEO & Co-Founder of ROAR for Good, a woman-led technology company dedicated to cultivating safer workplaces, gives self-employed people tips on how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

Being self-employed has an image that suggests a higher level of control while being shielded from some of the darker sides of working life, including things like sexual harassment.

However, the reality is that a self-employed person is no less likely to encounter sexual harassment than anyone else.

In this article we look at sexual harassment, how it can affect the self-employed differently, and what to do about it.

A UK study found that 52 per cent of female trade union members had been harassed at least once.

Meanwhile as part of a similar US study of women in the creative industry, the figure rose to 54 per cent.

When a self-employed person experiences sexual harassment, they may struggle to figure out what to do.

This is because in some cases, self-employed workers are covered differently under the law than those who are employed.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is when someone says or does something sexual or involving sex that creates an atmosphere where you feel uncomfortable, inadequate, offended, or humiliated.

The act can be physical or verbal, and can include being asked inappropriate or personal questions, telling sexual jokes, or making rude gestures.

Things aren’t always black and white, but any situation where you’re made to feel uncomfortable should be taken seriously.

Some cases of sexual harassment are often dismissed as “office banter” and joking, especially when this is part of the working culture at a company. However, if this is unwanted and creates a hostile atmosphere, it needs to be addressed for what it is.

Even if the behaviour isn’t directed at a single person but creates a difficult or humiliating working environment – such as sharing pornographic images or sexual jokes – this can still warrant a sexual harassment complaint.

Sexual harassment and discrimination according to law

In the UK, sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination according to the Equality Act of 2010. It’s defined as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of:

  • violating someone’s dignity
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment

The law puts the burden of proof on the victim of the harassment (known as “the complainant”), who needs to show that the person committing harassment did so intentionally, or that it was reasonable that they felt harassed, even if that wasn’t the original intention.

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are responsible for the conduct of their employees during the course of their work, whether in a workplace or at a work-related outing, including business trips and social events.

If someone at a company you’re working for has harassed you, the company is also responsible under what’s called “vicarious liability”.

Does the Equality Act cover the self-employed?

The Equality Act 2010 covers not only full and part-time employees, but also contractors and self-employed people hired to personally do the work. This last part is important because, if your contract states that you can hire others or find a replacement to do your work, then you may not be covered by the Equality Act 2010.

Whatever the case, if you’ve been sexually harassed or discriminated against and would like to take action, it’s important to seek professional legal advice.

Unfortunately, there are also incidents of sexual harassment that go beyond being covered under the Equality Act 2010 and instead constitute a crime, such as sexual assault and threats.

If you’re a victim of threats or assault, contact the police rather than trying to handle matters yourself.

Dealing with sexual harassment from a colleague

The reality of self-employment is that you have a more precarious connection with a company than a full-time employee.

This means you need to act carefully to avoid jeopardising your future opportunities with the company if you want to continue working with them.

Your first instinct may be to speak directly to your immediate point of contact at the company you’re working with, but this may backfire.

It could compromise your working relationship moving forward. And in the worst-case scenario, it may even be that this person is the one who’s causing the problem.

How to report sexual harassment

Those who are self-employed should actually report harassment and discrimination in the same way as an employee using the following steps:

  • speaking to a manager
  • speaking to human resources
  • reporting the incident through the company’s reporting service (such as a hotline or ombudsman)

Some self-employment contracts also contain a clause about harassment, so confirming these details would be a good starting point.

If you’re being harassed or discriminated against at a small company or by a client you’re working with, it’s unlikely there’ll be an HR department or reporting service you can use. In this case, if you wish to take action, it’s best to contact Citizens Advice and consider consulting a lawyer.

It’s important to note that being discriminated against or treated less favourably because you have complained about sexual harassment is also a form of harassment under the Equality Act 2010.

If you’ve reported sexual harassment and now feel that you're being treated unfairly or have even lost out on future work opportunities at a company, this is also valid grounds for making a complaint.

Dealing with sexual harassment from a customer

There are also cases where sexual harassment occurs at a workplace, but with customers instead of fellow staff.

Although companies aren't responsible for the actions of their customers, it’s their responsibility to protect workers from harassment and discrimination if they know it’s taking place.

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment or discrimination and believe the company was negligent in their duty to protect staff, this can be taken up with Citizens Advice or a lawyer.

Safety devices can protect employees

Some companies and places of work provide their employees with panic buttons, which are devices that can be used to discreetly summon help in case of emergency.

These are particularly useful in maintaining safe workplaces at hotels and healthcare facilities, where the harassment rates are disproportionately high, as staff often work alone and are likely to encounter customers in areas isolated from other people.

Panic buttons and other employee safety devices should also be made available to contractors or freelancers to make sure they benefit from the same security as full-time employees – particularly when working on site.

Who should you speak to about sexual harassment?

Speaking to someone you trust is always the first protocol for harassment issues and complaints, however this can be difficult when you’re self-employed.

That being said, getting support from a friend or family member and then speaking to someone in authority is a good way to proceed.

If you’ve been a victim of harassment, make sure you record your complaints and log any issues as they happen so you always have a record of what’s happened.

About Yasmine Mustafa

Yasmine Mustafa is a social entrepreneur and the CEO & Co-Founder of ROAR for Good. Based in Philadelphia, ROAR is a woman-led and mission-driven technology company dedicated to cultivating safer workplaces.

Their staff safety platform, The AlwaysOn™, is specifically designed for the hotel industry to summon help with one touch of a button.

Fueled by a passion to leverage technology for good, she leads the ROAR team in their mission to create safer workplaces and empowered communities.

Do you have an unanswered question about dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below.

Photograph 1: Anastasia Gubinskaya/

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Yasmine Mustafa

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Yasmine Mustafa

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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