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Support for dealing with sexual harassment at work when self-employed

No matter your employment contract, you have the right to work without harassment, abuse and discrimination.

Note: This guide contains links to useful resources if you've been affected by or dealt with sexual harassment at work. We recognise this is a sensitive subject, and this article may contain triggers for some - our aim is signpost you to professionally trained resources with advisors who can help you get the support you need.

Many of you may have read the recent article posted by Zoe Scaman on the misogyny and sexual harassment which women in the advertising industry have to face on a daily basis. If you haven’t read the article, it’s an importantly jarring reminder of unacceptable and often hidden behaviours that are too common in a huge industry sector.

As Zoe concludes: "Every single woman has a story from their time in the industry”, NABS research shows that 34% of female respondents in their 2018 study have been harassed whilst working in the industry, and 83% didn’t officially report their experiences. These are the numbers from people who are willing to say it happened. In reality - the numbers are likely higher.

The lockdown may have improved things for a short period of time, as being physically away from those offenders might help, TimeTo research carried out in 2020 shows that 49% are concerned that sexual harassment will be a bigger issue once we return to offices, "with fear of 'pent up' feelings being released when we are together in person".

These behaviours have a very direct impact on the mental health of those it is targeted at, as well as those around them, with lasting impacts way beyond the offence in the moment, and can change the course of someone’s career, their behaviours, their confidence, and their ability to thrive.

Everyone has the right to work without discrimination or abuse, yet so many have this right taken away daily.

But what if you’re not an employee?

The self-employed community is not immune to this experience in any way -  abuse of freelancers could be even more hidden from sight if an individual doesn’t feel they have the right to speak to someone about those behaviours when not employed, and feel like you don’t have anyone you can talk to about it.

No matter your employment contract, you have the right to work without harassment, abuse and discrimination. You are not alone, and there are organisations here to support you if you've experienced this, and reaching out for help is not wasting anyone's time.

We’re creating a resource page with two parts: addressing where you can get support as a member of the self-employed community if you’ve been affected by sexual harassment in work; and what your rights are under law as a worker.

We’ve specifically created it in that order: support first and then your rights.

Get Support

The most important first step is to not deal with sexual abuse, harassment or bullying on your own. What can be a hugely traumatic experience is magnified when you’re dealing with it on your own. Speak to someone in confidence, trained professionals who are there to listen, who understand the experience, and can offer you support.

If you’re in the advertising industry, we’d suggest first speaking to NABS.

They’re the industry’s charity supporting anyone working in advertising and media, including the self-employed and client side roles. Their phoneline provides confidential support and advice.

NABS: 0800 707 6607
Confidential and free. 9am – 5.30pm or email [email protected]

"We'd encourage anyone who is freelancing or self-employed in the advertising industry and has been affected by sexual harassment to call the NABS Advice Line for a confidential, safe space to talk. Our advisors will provide an empathic listening ear, focussing on how the caller has been impacted and how they are feeling. We’ll share impartial guidance on their options for addressing the sexual harassment, as well as act as a sounding board to help them consider their next steps. NABS’ other services such as therapy or coaching may be able to further support individuals, plus we will signpost callers to specialist organisations if needed.”  -- Debra Douglas, Senior Support Advisor, NABS

TimeTo additionally have a wide range of support resources, and are actively working with the industry to make a difference.

If you’re in any other industry, you can speak to:

Samaritans: 116 123
Free to call any time in confidence, 24/7

Whilst the issue disproportionately affects women, men are not immune - 5% of men in the NABS research said they’d been sexually harassed. Both NABS and Samaritans are open to anyone who needs support, regardless of gender.

Depending your industry, you may also have a union who represents and supports you as a freelance or self-employed worker, such as BECTU in Film and TV, NUJ for Journalism or general unions like Community.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger:

+ call 999 if you or someone else is in immediate danger
+ call 101 if it's not an emergency

To report a crime online, visit - Police.uk

When you're reporting a crime, you can ask to speak to a specialist officer who's trained to deal with sexual violence.

Take Action

Once you’ve ensured you have support for the experience, speaking up and taking action might be something you want to explore, and you have rights under law.

The TimeTo campaign has an excellent downloadable guide which includes actions to take if you've been sexually harassed, which is worth reading regardless of if you've experienced any harassment, so you are better prepared should something happen. Download the guide, and check page 7.

You have rights as a worker under UK law, even if you’re not an employee. Sexual harassment falls under the Equalities Act 2010, and could be treated as discrimination, which provides a right to legal action against the offender.

Employers can be responsible too – this is called 'vicarious liability'. By law, they must do everything they reasonably can to protect people from sexual harassment. This covers employees and workers, contractors and self-employed people hired to personally do the work and job applicants.

There are some variations depending on if you’re self-employed (i.e. sole trader, working directly) vs. working via an agency or limited company owner/employee, and some gaps in protection - it’s complicated, but again, there are support groups who can help you navigate the law and your rights.

The best resource we’ve found so far is Rights of Women, a charity helping women understand their rights in law, and how best to take action. Their sexual harassment at work help line gives free legal advice to women in England and Wales experiencing sexual harassment at work:

Rights of Women Sexual Harassment Advice Line: 020 7490 0152
Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays: 3pm – 5pm and 6 – 8pm. Please note the advice line is closed on bank holidays.

ACAS (The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Services) are a public and independent body funded by government, and have a number of additional resources on what sexual harassment is, and how you can report and act upon it. You can also call their helpline for advice on what action you might be able to take:

ACAS Helpline: 0300 123 1100
Open Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm.

The Citizens Advice Bureau also have resources which can help with recommendations on how to take action on their website.

Keeping this updated

As with everything we do, our first action is to signpost to what we are aware of, and develop and improve upon the resource over time, as we discover more, and understand how better to signpost and support our community.

We’ll be working with specialist groups to develop this resource for both support channels, and routes for action to take, as well as signposting to sector specific resources as we discover them - as this is not solely an issue in the advertising industry.

This document was last updated on: 1pm, July 7, 2021