What is sexual harassment?

It's still a problem

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Friday, Jun 14, 2024

A 2015 employment tribunal judgment awarded £3.2 million to a female banker who had suffered sexual harassment at work, and the case was not a one-off.

Financial costs aren’t the only negative impact sexual harassment can have on your organisation, either. Research shows sexual harassment victims are more likely to suffer depression, have a low opinion of their managers and want to leave their job (CIPD). That can result in higher staff turnover and poorer performance. And when cases go public, the damage your reputation can be significant.

The key to preventing these issues lies in understanding sexual harassment and managing it responsibly — ideally before it happens

Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace

UK sexual harassment law is covered by the Equality Act 2010, which defines harassment as:

“Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”

Examples of sexual harassment at work can include:

  • coercion for sexual favours
  • comments about a person’s appearance or behaviour
  • personal insults and offensive language
  • personal intrusion from pestering or stalking
  • unwanted physical contact

Employers’ legal responsibilities on sexual harassment

The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from sexual harassment at work and when applying for a job. In some circumstances, they are also protected after leaving a job — when you provide a written reference, for example.

As an employer, under the Equality Act you are responsible for sexual harassment between your employees. You could also be found responsible for harassment:

  • From a third party, such as a customer
  • In any environment where work-related activities happen, such as social outings
  • Online or via text messages, if it is seen to have originated at your workplace

These legal responsibilities provide good reason to protect your employees from all forms of sexual harassment.

Discouraging sexual harassment at work

An effective preventative measure is to create a harassment policy, which is coordinated with your grievance and disciplinary procedures. Your policy might include:

  • A clear statement that sexual harassment at work will not be tolerated and will lead to disciplinary action
  • Examples of what constitutes sexual harassment
  • The legal implications, including costs that can arise from personal liability
  • How employees can make a complaint, and the process that will follow
  • A commitment to responding to complaints quickly, confidentially, fairly and with a full investigation

To ensure the policy is effective, you can ensure it is understood by all staff through induction and training. You might also require managers to implement the policy and understand their important role in addressing all forms of harassment.

Procedures to deal with sexual harassment complaints

All sexual harassment complaints should be dealt with promptly and thoroughly. Many complaints may be resolved informally, by raising the issue with the alleged harasser. Through early intervention and mediation, you may be able to resolve problems before they become too serious.

Employees should feel able to make their complaint to any manager, in case the perpetrator is their own line manager.

Formal procedure

A formal procedure should be triggered when informal measures don’t work. This procedure should fit with your organisation’s disciplinary procedure and should follow the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures. Complaints should be kept confidential to prevent victimisation.

Conducting an investigation

Formal sexual harassment complaints should be treated as a disciplinary matter, which should trigger a full investigation. Your investigation should be thorough and impartial, considering both sides of the story. You should set a timescale for resolving the complaint.

Taking disciplinary action

When a complaint is upheld, you should take action in line with your organisation’s disciplinary procedure. One course of action is to relocate either the complainant or the harasser. In these cases, avoid potential constructive dismissal claims by making sure no breach of contract occurs.

Lucy Cobb

Employment Law Specialist

Share this article

Have a question?

Ask away, we’ve got lightning fast answers for UK business owners and employers powered by qualified experts.

More on what is discrimination at work?

Person sitting at desk with a laptop

Menopause in the Workplace

With the population now living longer, it is vital that you support your employee’s health and wellbeing. For those who experience symptoms at ...

What is the Equality Act 2010?

This Act of Parliament is a piece of legislation we often refer to in our various HR and employment law guides. And with good reason, the Equality ...

two female colleagues chatting

Unfair treatment of an employee at work

Unfair treatment at work can have a devastating impact on employees. It can cause them to lose motivation, feel unappreciated, and it can even lead ...

Religious discrimination in the workplace

Religious discrimination is treating a person or group differently because of their beliefs. Specifically, it is when adherents of different ...

Racial discrimination in the workplace

In todays diverse world, its disheartening to acknowledge that racial discrimination still persists in various aspects of life, including the ...

Unoccupied office featuring a desk and computer, implying unauthorized absence.

Indirect discrimination

You might have heard of direct discrimination, which is when you treat someone _differently_ because of who they are. For example, not employing ...

Gender or sex discrimination at work

Gender discrimination and sex discrimination are exactly the same thing—and we’re going to use both terms in this article. But what is gender ...

Group of people with their hands together showing equality

Gender equality at work

In todays rapidly evolving society, the importance of gender equality in the workplace cannot be overstated. Despite considerable progress, gender ...

Diversity in the workplace

Diversity in the workplace is not just a buzzword or a politically correct slogan, its a fundamental and powerful driver of success in the modern ...