Employers have a legal obligation to take sexual harassment at work seriously, and protect their employees wellbeing at work. Failure to do so can lead to the employer being held responsible for the harassment.
But what can sexual harassment look like? What should victims do to protect themselves in this incredibly upsetting situation?
Our guide looks at how sexual harassment at work can manifest, what is likely to happen when you make a complaint, and when behaviour might need to be reported to the police.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that intends to, or does, make another person feel humiliated, upset, uncomfortable or scared is sexual harassment.
It’s vital to understand the intent behind this type of behaviour does not always matter. If the victim is distressed and feels they have been sexually harassed, then even unintentional behaviour can be harassment. The definition of this will depend on the circumstances, and whether it was reasonable for the unwanted behaviour to have that impact upon the victim.
The misconduct does not need to be face to face. It can take place on social media, by text or by email.
However, the law on sexual harassment is unambiguous. Any sexual behaviour that happens without consent is inappropriate and should not be tolerated. It can have serious implications in the workplace and affect the victim’s mental well being. Employers are legally obligated to prevent harassment in the workplace, and can be held liable if they fail to do so.
The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from harassment based on protected characteristics. These are age, disability, gender reassignment, sexuality, race, religion or belief, and sex. Sexual harassment is considered sex discrimination. This is because it involves treating an individual differently due to their sex.
Source: Equality Act 2010 S26
Who Can be Sexually Harassed?
Sexual harassment can happen to people of all genders, gender identities, and sexual orientations. They can be harassed by someone of the same sex, the opposite sex, or someone of any gender identity.
Sexual Harassment Examples
Sexual harassment can take the form of a range of actions. It doesn’t need to be physical or overtly sexual behaviour.
Below are some examples of the specific actions that constitute sexual harassment:-
- Sexual comments or any vocal noises such as wolf whistling.
- Gestures of a sexual nature such as imitating sex with hand motions.
- Staring at someone inappropriately.
- Jokes which are of, or carry, sexual connotations.
- Sexual advances or flirting.
- Sexual bribes or requests.
- Images, texts and emails that contain sexual content.
- Sexual comments or posts on social media.
- Inappropriate probing into a person’s sex life.
- Talking about your own sex life.
- Inappropriate remarks about a person’s outfit choice or appearance.
- Spreading rumours about someone that are sexual.
- Invading a person’s personal space.
- Inappropriate physical contact.
- Stalking someone whether online or otherwise.
How Common is Sexual Harassment at Work?
A recent government survey showed that 30% of women report experiences of sex harassment at work. They are closely followed by men. 30% of women report experiences of sex harassment at work., although the nature of the harassment was different.
The survey highlighted that the most common behaviours in the workplace were; jokes of a sexual nature, inappropriate staring and sexual comments. Source: 2020 Sexual Harassment Survey – Govt Equalities Office.
A 2023 TUC poll focused on women indicated that 3 in 5 (58%) women have experience of sexual harassment at work. The numbers increase to 2 in 3 for those aged 25 to 34 (62%).
A staggering 2 in 5 (43%) of women have experienced 3 or more incidents of sexual harassment. These shocking statistics highlight how much still need to be done to protect workers from harassment.
Impacts of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
The impact of sexual harassment can be huge. The workplace should be a safe working environment where equality prevails. When employees become a victim of harassment, it can affect all aspects of their life.
They may feel many different emotions, including being ashamed, scared and humiliated. It can also have a detrimental effect on mental health, causing anxiety, stress, depression and low self esteem. There can also be physical disorders such as trouble sleeping, nightmares, panic attacks and digestive problems.
In the short term, it can cause financial loss or worry about one’s future in the job. Sadly, rather than report the harassment, many simply hand in their notice, unable to cope anymore.
At the more severe end of the spectrum, it can lead to thoughts of self harm or suicide. It can hurt personal relationships and build up feelings of mistrust. It can potentially cause the end of a person’s career or passion. The impact of sexual harassment in the workplace can be devastating and lifechanging.
2016 TUC statistics report that 40% of female victims of sexual harassment felt embarassed by their experience, and 10% reported suffering issues with their mental health. This led to some victims suffering loss of confidence, with many saying they were avoiding some work situations altogether.
The perpetrator of sexual harassment at work is responsible for their own actions. However, it’s the responsibility of the employer to hold them to account and protect the welfare of the victim.
All employers have a legal obligation to protect their staff. This includes having robust procedures in place to prevent and deal with sexual harassment. This should be treated with a zero tolerance attitude.
Employers must be seen to be doing all they can to prevent sexual harassment in any work situation. Should they fail to do so, they may be found liable for allowing one of their employees to discriminate against someone. This is referred to as vicarious liability.
Employers have a duty of care for the wellbeing of anyone employed by them and failure to protect them this can be a breach of contract. Should an employee resign because an employer did not protect them from sexual harassment, they could make a claim against the employer for sexual harassment and constructive dismissal.
Source: ACAS – Sexual Harassment
What to Do if You Are Being Sexually Harassed at Work
Being sexually harassed in the workplace is a violation of the 2010 Equality Act and should be dealt with seriously. If you have found yourself in this situation, you need to speak out. No one should be scared, humiliated or violated in their place of work.
The following steps should be followed when you are a victim of sexual harassment by a colleague or manager:-
Raise a Complaint
- Make a formal complaint to your employer. This should be taken seriously and dealt with in a timely fashion.
- Write down all the incidents that have occurred, even if there is only one. This could be conversations held, being stared at, inappropriate texts or inappropriate contact. Keep a note of dates and times too.
- Speak to someone about your options. If you have a union representative, or trusted colleagu you should approach them. You must get support and be made aware of all the options available to you.
- Confide in someone you trust, not for advice but for someone to unburden with. This is important to stop you from feeling alone.
- ACAS has some recommended sources of support outwith the workplace.
Raise a Grievance
- When a complaint doesn’t seem to have produced results, you should raise a formal grievance. Check your company policies as there may be a set procedure for raising a grievance. If not, follow the ACAS advice.
- You should prepare for the likelihood of a disciplinary meeting being held to investigate. You may be asked to attend, however you have the right to be accompanied if you make a reasonable request for support.
Your Right to Involve Police
- If the sexual harassment was a crime, such as rape or sexual assault then you should seek support. This can be a health professional, a charity, a friend or your partner.
- Your employer should follow their own procedures and support your decision to involve the police or not.
- There may be some cases where your employer can involve the police on your behalf but this is unusual.
- If a crime has been committed then this takes precedence over any procedures your employer must follow. This means they will need to wait until the police investigation has finished before they take action.
- If you are unhappy with the handling of the complaint you can approach an employment tribunal.
- Your employer should take disciplinary action regardless of any criminal investigation. Police involvement should not be used as a reason to delay proceedings.
Sexual Assault at Work
When someone is sexually harassed at work they might be the target of unwanted comments, attention or jokes. While this behaviour is wrong and a violation of working rights, it will not always be a criminal offence.
However, sexual assault is a crime. This occurs when a person is subject to physical contact or behaviour that violates their whole being. Sexual assault can include the following:
- Rape and attempted rape.
- Being forced to carry out sexual acts.
- Inappropriate touching
- Forcible object penetration.
As well as reporting these crimes to the employer, employees also have the right to contact the police. The police will carry out their own investigation into the claims which will be done before the employer can take any action.
Being Accused of Sexual Harassment at Work
Being accused of sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious situation. Everyone involved in such a complaint has the right to a fair hearing. Employers must handle these situations very carefully to ensure the correct protocols are followed.
When someone finds themselves accused of sexual harassment, they should listen to the claims carefully. It might transverse that, although unintentional, their actions did violate someone’s civil rights. If this is the case, then being open and honest is best.
An employer may deem it necessary to suspend the accused from work pending an investigation. When this is the case it is imperative to be compliant. Whether innocent or guilty, you will get your time to speak your truth. In the meantime, cooperating with the investigation is a must.
The accused should put together their version of events and include any witnesses, where relevant. The hearing should be fair and consistent, giving everyone a chance to talk and ask questions.
The employer will then decide where to go from this point. The worst case scenario is dismissal. If you feel this was unjustified then you can appeal and go to a tribunal court.
Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Work
Due to the seriousness of such incidents of sexual harassment, is essential that employers do their utmost to prevent it. Although easier said than done, there are steps employers can take to minimise the risk of sexual harassment from happening at work.
Any workplace should have a zero tolerance work culture when it comes to sexual harassment. This means making it clear that any complaints of such a nature will be taken very seriously. This should be detailed in the employee’s contract or company handbook.
There needs to be clear policies in place so that everyone in the workplace knows where they stand. This includes what constitutes sexual harassment, and how it should be dealt with in the event of a complaint.
This leaves no room for misinterpretation then and no one can say they didn’t realise the behaviour was inappropriate.
New employees should be enrolled on an online sexual harassment course. This will help them understand the behaviours that fall into this category. It will also ensure they know what to do if they find themselves a victim.
Taking part in a sexual harassment risk assessment means that employers can identify any possible risks. These can then be removed or reduced, enabling a safer and equal environment. These assessments should be reviewed periodically.
All staff should have access to important information such as how to raise a complaint. It should reiterate that such matters will be dealt with sensitively and confidentially. There should be some support numbers and websites too.
The recent #metoo movement brought much needed awareness to the culture of sexual harassment. Supervisors and managers need to take an active role in ensuring workplaces are safe. This is done by being involved in the day to day operations and liaising with staff. It also means educating senior staff on what to look out for that might indicate sexual harassment.