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Sexual Harassment at Work

Author: Jeff Durham - Updated: 26 February 2015 | commentsComment
What Constitutes Sexual Harassment At

The law makes it clear that sexual harassment is definitely not acceptable. Whilst there is no strict definition as to what constitutes sexual harassment, the Sex Discrimination Act gives you the legal right not to be sexually harassed at work and it is also unlawful to treat women (or men) less favourably because of their sex.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment constitutes any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature. It's not about fun or friendship but about the abuse of power. It is also worth bearing in mind that many people respond to situations in different ways. What may seem like an innocent action or remark to one person may be deemed offensive by another and the law sides with the 'victim' not the 'perpetrator'. Since there is no single definition, the test is how the recipient feels about the behaviour. Whilst men can also be subject to sexual harassment, the vast majority of cases have been by women against men. It is estimated that 50% of women in employment are, or have been, subject to sexual harassment of some form or other. It doesn't just happen to women who work in large offices or those who work within a predominantly male working environment; it can happen to people in any occupation, to any age group and from every community.

It can take place in many forms which can broadly be categorised in 3 groups:


  • Comments about appearance, body or clothes
  • Indecent remarks
  • Questions or comments about your sex life
  • Requests for sexual favours
  • Sexual demands made by someone of the opposite sex, or even your own sex
  • Promises or threats concerning a person's employment conditions in return for sexual favours

  • Looking or staring at a person's body
  • Display of sexually explicit material such as calendars, pin ups or magazines

  • Physically touching, pinching, hugging, caressing, kissing
  • Sexual assault
  • Rape

What Can I do About Sexual Harassment?

In the first instance, you should try to confront the harasser. It may be that their perception of harassment is not the same as yours and they didn't realise you found their behaviour offensive. When you confront them you should:
  • Speak clearly and slowly, maintaining direct eye contact
  • Describe the behaviour, its effects on you and that you want it to stop
  • Ignore any attempts to trivialise or dismiss what you have to say
  • Don't smile or apologise. This will undermine your complaint
  • When you have finished what you want to say, walk away - the less you say, the more powerful you will be

However, you do need to speak up straight away. It may be that you choose a confidante, a colleague or union representative to give you moral support. They could also act as a witness to any incidents of improper behaviour.

If you feel you can't confront the harasser face to face, you might prefer to write to them to explain that their behaviour is making you feel uncomfortable and that you want it to stop. Keep a copy of the letter and let them know that if their behaviour persists, you will take the matter further.

Keep a Diary

Note down all the behaviour that offends you, the dates, times and location where the behaviour took place and if there were any other people present, keep a record of their names. This will help you if you need to make an official complaint.

What if it Continues?

Once you've confronted the perpetrator, if the behaviour continues you need to tell your employer. Many employers have a procedure - follow it. Your employer should investigate your complaint and deal with it. You have the right to take someone with you to any meetings about your complaint. They can back you up if necessary. Once again, keep a written record of everything that happens.

When and Why Should I Take my Case to a Tribunal?

Employment Tribunals are external committees who assess whether employers have acted unlawfully and seek to resolve the problem. You should go to a tribunal if:
  • The harassment continues after you've told the perpetrator to stop and you've reported it to your employer
  • The harasser owns the company and there's no-one else to complain to
  • If you are not happy with the way the investigation was handled and/or you are not satisfied with the outcome

You MUST File Your Complaint Within 3 Months of The Incident Taking Place.

The Employment Tribunals Commission and your local Citizen's Advice Bureau can offer you excellent guidance and advice about this type of complaint.

Sexual harassment at work threatens your confidence and self-esteem. It can stop you working effectively, undermines your dignity and it can affect your health and happiness.

Nobody should be subjected to it. Fortunately, a variety of laws exist to protect you.

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@Charlie. Speak to your employer. Have you got the support of any of your other colleagues, even the male ones? Perhaps they can back you up with witness statements. It's important that you do raise this with someone before it progresses or affects your career.
SafeWorkers - 2-Mar-15 @ 2:14 PM
Hi, just after some advice. I currently work in heavy plant hire which is very much a male dominated environment. I have worked here for nearly 8 years and like any workforce have a laugh and a joke with other members of staff. I have always had a problem with the manager with regards to his sexual references. He is always saying things about how he could treat me better than my boyfriend and the things he could do for me. He has got a wife that works in the same offices but always tends to say things when she is not around. He thinks because he's got lots of money that he's gods gift. He puts his arm around me sometimes or touches my waist but does this also with another woman member of staff. I just pull away when this happens because I just feel repulsed by it. I feel that because he is my boss he can say and do what he likes but I feel I am stuck because if I say anything I will lose my job. I am on a LinkedIn network for businesses which you have to do a profile on including a picture. For the past 3/4 weeks plus he has been on my profile about 3-4 nights of the week. I am beginning to get seriously freaked out by all this now because there is no need to look at my profile because nothing changes. Help!!
Charlie - 26-Feb-15 @ 10:32 AM
@nelly. You shouldn't have to put up with this. Follow the advice in the above article to deal with this. Do let us know how you get on.
SafeWorkers - 18-Feb-15 @ 11:41 AM
One of my fellow team leaders slapped my arse it made me feel uncomfortable she also made several unacceptable touches to me last year. Im a male and she is a very dominant female. It is also upsetting my girlfriend.
nelly - 16-Feb-15 @ 8:22 PM
@CB. All you can do is state the facts as you experienced them. If further action is taken and you end up dismissed, then you should seek legal advice if you feel you have been unfairly treated.
SafeWorkers - 5-Feb-15 @ 12:16 PM
Hi I was wondering if I could get some help I've been accused of sexual harassment in the workplace I work as a chef we have been well documented to have a bad sense of humour and have a laugh we have a waitress who spent the last month flirting with the head chef making fairly sexual coment after the 3 of us were talking about who she got on with at work and having banter about it not sexual she made a coment about a pot washer saying she was worked he might lock her in when she was alone I made a coment and I quote he did look abit of a rape type only after the rape word had been used by both the head chef and her she's now acousing me of forcing to have a threesome and when she said said I was going to rape her she carried on laughing and joking all afternoon and said nothing to say that I had affected her in any way please help I'm not that kind of person to affend people and I would not say anything like this I'm worried because I still have to work there when she's at work and worried she might say I've done something else I was looking for another job and the head chef did know the day before this happened seams like there just trying to find a way to get rid of me help
Cb - 2-Feb-15 @ 10:32 AM
@meg. You should report this kind of behaviour to the police and can do so retrospectively regarding your previous experience. If you have any indication that your new manager will behave in the same way, immediately refer them to senior management following the procedure in the NHS employee handbook.
SafeWorkers - 22-Jan-15 @ 10:19 AM
i suffered for years at hands of a superviser in the nhs housekeeping. the start of it was text messages of obscene content, then actual calls when he was masturbating on the phone, this progress to him coming to my work area when i was alone, i was forced to perform sexual acts.I eventually snapped i texted him saying i would report him.He made a complaint about me as he said he would. He got me fired management sided with him. I have been offer another cleaning job and am now suffering anxiety as I will be once again under a male superviser.
meg - 19-Jan-15 @ 7:40 PM
@JC. Simply stand your ground, remain calm and state your case. There should be some evidence and if your colleague is lying this will come out at a hearing. If there was anyone with you at the party, who could vouch for you, that would also help.
SafeWorkers - 19-Dec-14 @ 12:20 PM
I have been falsely accused of touching a colleague at a drinks party. This simply never happened yet I am being invited to a disciplinary hearing. On what grounds could this brushed against me as I am innocent. Is it literally my word against hers? Feeling devastated and powerless I don't even know this person.
JC - 18-Dec-14 @ 6:40 PM
@Jc53. Unfortunately, as it is now more than 3 months since the harrassment took place, you will not be able to take this to a tribunal. If the sexual harrassment is continuing then make another complaint. If nothing is done be sure to take this to a tribunal before the required period ends (3 months minus one day, from the date of the offence). Here is another Q & A article that we have on this topic, which you may find useful
SafeWorkers - 18-Dec-14 @ 1:57 PM
hi I could do with some advice I made a grievance against a guy at work for sexual harassment including verbal and physical this complaint has been on going now for 3 months and today I was told by my employer there was nothing the could do because there is no witness or camera footage of this happen what is the next step. how do I get this problem resolved as I cant go back to work with this guy and they are expecting me to just get on with it as though nothing has happened
jc53 - 18-Dec-14 @ 12:48 PM
@me. Just stick to the facts as you saw them, keep calm and maintain that the cleaner was joining in with what you considered to be 'banter'
SafeWorkers - 17-Dec-14 @ 11:09 AM
Hi..i could do with some information...i have been accused of sexual harrasment at work by a cleaner..ive only met this cleaner for the first time..i asked her how much does she charge per hour..she replyed £13.50..then i said as a joke thats not bad for a scrubber....she replyed im not a scrubber im a buffer as she was laughing about it....so i said you can come and buffer my place if you like kid...and it was left at that...over a week later i was called into the managers office where he said there had been a complaint of sexual harrasment by the cleaner. I am being accused of asking how much she charges...calling her a scrubber and inviting her back to give her a baby..this is not the case...we was having a laugh thats all.. now im worried about losing my job..is there anyone that can give me some advice please
me - 16-Dec-14 @ 11:10 AM
I have been receiving unwanted Sexual harassment for over 1 year. I never reported it because I knew it would make things worse rather than better at work because I work for a private company and I don't have a union for support. A lot of the harassments were non physical but it still made me uncomfortable. My boss would look at my figure a lot, he became really interested in my dating life, he once asked me to take of my bra during a drinking game which I did not to and left shortly after. Unfortunately because I didn't act sooner, I felt this gave him more confidence to continue. He is extremely senior now and knows he can act however he likes. I was recently invited for a work team building event to the USA which coincided with my bosses trip for a conference (I was only allowed to go at a time my boss travelled because I support him). When I told him I was attending, he asked me what hotel I was staying at. I told him it was a nice but cheap hotel near the iffice, one that the travel agency found, I showed him the hotel and he said no don't stay there, it's not very nice.. You should stay at the hotel I'm at. This Made me uncomfortable and I just shrugged it off and booked a separate hotel from him anyway. I actually told my colleague and was like as if I would stay in the same hotel as him, stating it would be weird. She agreed. On the trip I actualky kept my distance but I also didn't know many people there so when I got invited to a works team drinks by a girl colleague I saud yes. Originally my boss had asked me that day of I wanted to join but I made up and excuse and said I wac meeting someone but when I knew other people is other girls would be there I thought it would be ok, during the night the managers kept buying rounds of drinks. Everytime a round was deliverd another one was orderd. We didn't get to choose our drinks as they kept just reordering. I don't know his many were ordered but everyone I came back from the ladies there was always a drink in front of me, for most of the night I felt fine, one by one people left and it was just me, a female colleague and my boss, we all were taking and actually got into a big of a discussion about dishes in the sink. My boos felt that I should be sending more emailed to the office , then my collegue pointed out that in his position and duties he should worry less about 1 bowl in the sink ( it was literally a bowl). Then at find point she disappeared but didn't day anything. I think I asked my boss and he said yea I think she is coming back and orderd a drink, I went to the ladies, came back and still no sign. Then about 20-30 mins later she did come back and she had gigot ten her coat. I remember the bouncer saying she had fallen over and that's the last memory I have of that night until I woke up at 4:30am the next day. I was fully dressed but as I suddenly just work up, I felt an arm go around me. He was there!! He asked if I was ok. I promptly got up and saud he should leave. I
Nat - 27-Nov-14 @ 7:49 PM
@girl_spark. In the first instance talk to someone at college, do you have a welfare officer or a personal tutor? It might also help to have a discussion with some of your more trusted course colleagues and let them know that you feeling seriously affected by this. They might be able to put the perpetrator straight on what he obviously thinks is banter but clearly is not. If you find this is still an issue you should make a formal complaint, find out what the procedures are at your college and follow them. Good luck
SafeWorkers - 18-Nov-14 @ 11:31 AM
@kobzilla. All companies should have a formal grievance procedure. You need to follow this to make sure this is acted on. Take a look at our guide for more information.
SafeWorkers - 18-Nov-14 @ 11:26 AM
I have told my boss about a guy who keeps touching me inappropriately and hugging me and resting his head on my shoulder over and over and my boss said he would talk to him, it stopped for a bit and continued again i kept complaing and my boss said i will talk to him but he is still touching me and hugging me and being inappropriate what should i do since my boss is my dad and he seems not to be doing much about it? should i say its him or me and threaten to quit? i dont know what to do help please Kobzilla
Kobzilla - 17-Nov-14 @ 5:51 PM
Hey, I've just started training as a young female electrician apprentice. I attend college one day a week with boys around different ages between 16 - 23, and I also work 4 days a week with an electrician. My trade is mostly male dominated, and before this has never bothered me, neither in work or on the college course I attended last year, both of which where I am/was the only female. Recently I started college in a new class, on a new course, for one day a week. Though most of the guys in my class do banter a bit with me about being a girl etc and some of it is sexual, it has always been stuff that I am comfortable with, but there is this one guy in my class who takes it way too far. Its been about 8 weeks now since I started college, and I figured that he'd eventually just stop bugging me and making inappropriate compliments, but he hasn't, and it's getting worse. He never says it when my tutor is around, only when the boys are around. Last week he made me feel really uncomfortable and he completely crossed the line, and when I told him he'd taken it too far, he just laughed and carried on. Now there's certain things you don't say too people, and I'm pretty sure 'I want to tie you up with your scarf and f***k you' and 'I masturbated over your profile picture 3 times' is up there as some of them. I've removed him from my social networking profiles, but I am unsure what to do with regards to working with him in college, I know if I tell someone of authority and they mention it too him, he'll know it was me. I also don't want to seem like I'm one of those women who can't take a joke because I can, but I have to spend 3 years with this guy and I'm unsure as to whether he's joking when he makes these comments, but either way they make me feel seriously uncomfortable, but nobody, with the exception of one or two, seems to understand this. Despite me telling them that some things they say make me feel uncomfortable, they just laugh and say 'I think she likes it really'. It doesn't help that the guy I'm talking about has a friend who at times can be just as bad, and who also encourages him. I don't feel there's anybody I can really talk about this too, and I could really do with some advice. Thanks in advance,
Girl_spark - 13-Nov-14 @ 10:01 PM
@Xtremepmt. As an employee you are protected against this type of behaviour no matter how small the company you work for. This is not a good reason for being dismissed and will affect the way you are viewed for future job opportunities. Because of the nature of your complaint (ie the perpertrator is the owner's husband) you may need take this to a tribunal. You might also need professional support to take this action - so visit your local Citizen's Advice Bureau, a employment solicitor (first half hour consultation is often free) or phone ACAS. Do act quickly as you only have 3 months-minus-one-day from the date of the last incident in which to raise this.
SafeWorkers - 11-Nov-14 @ 1:02 PM
Have been on a workplace placement through the Job Centre with a small family owned boarding kennels.I am 21 yr femail. Have thoroughly loved doing the work.Despite the job centre contract being for only 30 hours a week. i was always rotated on to do up to 40 hours per week.Again, i always worked as required and was offered an Apprenticeship as the owner was pleased with my work.I jumped at the opportunity.This apprenticeship was due to begin next month.However on a few occasions the owners husband had become a bit to touchy feely with me.I am a private person who does not like their personal space invaded.I asked my mother for some guidance on how to deal with the matter as i did not want to jump the gun and say sexual harassment.I just felt very uncomfortable when he touched me (arms round shoulders, 'accidentally' brushing past my breasts type things)and couple of weeks later he touched my bottom on the pretense of brushing off some paint/muck.It really upset me so i went o see my boss (his wife) and asked if we could be put on separate shifts as he had made me feel uncomfortable... am not the best with words. But basically i was sent home and received a text later dismissing me.I am really upset as the apprenticeship was really important to me and felt that this situation was not of my own fault.I have lost my work and opportunity through being inapproapriately touched... what can i do....??
xtremepmt - 10-Nov-14 @ 12:05 PM
@Fem. Can you not tell if you're being sexually harassed? Surely if something makes you feel uncomfortable that constitutes harassment.
Fenella - 3-Nov-14 @ 12:38 PM
I was sexually harassed extensively but missed the 3 month window as did not see what was happening. No one gave me advice or supported me. However I was sexually assaultedbut need to check the legal side, sexually harassed again. Complicated & then following me online. I may pursue a sexual assault charge but complicated situation. Currently, I have had inappropriate comments from a colleague but no proof of this & am self employed. In fact, I have decided I cannot work anywhere as always sexually pursued or harassed. I think it is about power & control & misogny. If I cannot pursue a legal route I am writing about all of this & think there should be more training for women & girks about the workplace & how should be treated.
Fem - 2-Nov-14 @ 12:01 AM
@mels. Whether or not you consider it to be sexual harassment is irrelevant, if they are behaving in a way that is making you feel uncomfortable then you should report it to senior manager or the HR department
SafeWorkers - 17-Oct-14 @ 10:19 AM
hi, i just started my internship at a certain government department. a male colleage came to my office last week and we chatted for few minutes then he came to where i was seated (he was too close for comfort) then he started asking me when am i going home, who am i staying with and all that. later, i realised that hewas looking at my breast. i kept quiet about it. Today, 15/10/14, i asked thesecurity guy to open the photocopy room because my thumb is notactivated due to out-dated system. so, he said asked where is my "husband" and said that he wants a wife and i will be that wife. he said "my husband" better watch out then he tried to touch me and i refused and told him to stop. Another thing is that whenever i pass near them (him and his friend -also security guy) the look at my bottom and it's uncomfortable. his friend also made a pass on me on severaloccassions and he still looks at me in a "sexual" way. I told him that i will report them if they continue but they dont stop. Ist "Sexual harassment" or i'm being paranoid?
mels - 16-Oct-14 @ 2:17 PM
@Stw. It certainly is a difficult situation to be in but you should not have to put up with inappropriate behaviour. Start by telling the owner that you do not find the behaviour acceptable and you would prefer him to stop. If that does not work, then you will have no alternative but to complain to your own manager (who unfortunately is the wife). If this has repercussions relating to your job, you should speak to ACAS and take it to an employment tribunal.
SafeWorkers - 15-Oct-14 @ 10:26 AM
So this is really awkward. I need help. The manager is a woman she is married to the owner. The owner is inappropriate who do I complain to if he's the owner and she's the wife!
Stw - 14-Oct-14 @ 11:00 PM
Does sexual harassment need to happen more than once for it to be taken seriously? An old man that I have to work with walked up to me and put his arm around me and I had to really struggle to get out of his hold. I'm now trying to decide which course of action to take but feel maybe an informal route is enough cos he's only done it once to me. Help!
Unsupported... - 6-Oct-14 @ 7:57 PM
I work for the dwp. I have suffered sexual harassment for 4.5 years. Me and other woman. We have complained but I finally made sure it was dealth with. Im not sure whats worse the harassment or my treatment by my managers. Its still not concluded 5 months later even after last week I was told its been upheld. Im looking to take legal action for the harassment and my employer's treatment of me. If the dwp dont do what the law states how do we make things better
asdfg - 16-Sep-14 @ 7:35 PM
@C. The disciplinary procedure will be laid out in your contract of employment...each employer's procedure may vary slightly. Generally there is a written warning stating a specified period of time during which any further poor performance or behaviour will result in a final warning or disciplinary hearing with a view to dismissal etc. Here is what ACAS recommends:
"A first or final written warning should set out the nature of the misconduct or poor performance and the change in behaviour or improvement in performance required (with timescale). The employee should be told how long the warning will remain current. The employee should be informed of the consequences of further misconduct, or failure to improve performance, within the set period following a final warning. For instance that it may result in dismissal or some other contractual penalty such as demotion or loss of seniority."
SafeWorkers - 16-Sep-14 @ 10:24 AM
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