Sexual Harassment in the Workplace UK Guide

What sexual harassment at work is

The Oxford Dictionary defines sexual harassment as “behaviour characterised by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation”. Therefore, any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which makes you feel intimidated, humiliated, or uncomfortable is defined as sexual harassment.

Laws have been implemented to protect people from sexual harassment at work, these laws surround: employees, contractors and job applicants.

It must be noted that, with the continuation of working from home becoming a permanent feature of the ‘new normal’, employers still have a responsibility to protect staff from sexual harassment out of an office environment. This means that workplace sexual harassment is not inclusive to an office setting, and can still take place when working from home.

The Equality Act 2010 Harassment Definition

All groups are protected under The Equality Act 2010’s definition of harassment. Under section 26, it is described as unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic and which violates a person’s dignity or has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

In the UK, The Equality Act 2010 means that people cannot be discriminated against or harassed for any of the following reasons:

  • Gender reassignment
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Race
  • Religion and belief
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Disability
  • Age

Why Employers Are Responsible

If an employer hasn’t taken all reasonable steps to prevent harassment, they will be deemed liable. The requirement is to take preventative steps, an investigation and disciplinary action after the fact will not be sufficient to avoid liability.

Employers should have policies in place to ensure The Equality Act of 2010 is upheld across their organisation; this means harassment prevention measures should be in place with a zero-tolerance policy. A clear process and the assurance that all employees are aware of this in regards to sexual harassment in the workplace is the responsibility of the employer.

Employees must feel comfortable to report harassment within the workplace without fear or concerns; once a complaint has been submitted, it should be dealt with efficiently and seriously. The best way to do this would be to put a policy in place which makes it clear that the company will support employees and prioritise respect of staff members.

Managers should enforce any rules put in place and be prepared to interject and report if they have witnessed something which they deem unacceptable. Staff are likely to work better and prolong their career at the same organisation if they feel safe and comfortable at work.

Prior to a complaint being made, employers can send out anonymous staff surveys, allowing them to see how their employees feel on important issues including harassment, diversity and equality.

If you’re an employer who needs bespoke training with Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace or Responding to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, get in touch with ICENA.

Examples of sexual harassment

There are numerous reasons someone may be reported for sexual harassment; anything with a sexual connotation which makes an employee uncomfortable or interferes with their ability to work constitutes harassment.
These include, but are not limited to:

  • Sending suggestive interactions (emails, texts)
  • Making inappropriate sexual gestures
  • Sharing sexual anecdotes or telling lewd jokes
  • Sharing sexual images or videos directly with co-workers
  • Posting sexual images around the workplace
  • Wolf-whistling or uncomfortable starting
  • Inappropriate or unwanted touching
  • Sexual comments about someone’s appearance
  • Asking about someone’s sex life or sexual orientation
  • Making offensive comments about someone’s sexual history, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Consequences of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Reporting sexual harassment in the workplace can be a challenging thing to do, so it’s important that as an organisation you have the right procedures in place to ensure that your staff is well-looked after and feels safe and comfortable. Disciplinary action may be taken against the offender, which can cause a hostile environment, particularly if the complainant is not anonymous; as employers, it is your position to ensure that your staff feel protected after making a complaint.

As stated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Sexual Harassment and Harassment at Work, a range of appropriate consequences and sanctions should be set out if harassment or victimisation occurs in the workplace. In the guide, it has been advised that employers state that victimisation or retaliation against a complainant will not be tolerated.

Some forms of harassment may relate to a criminal offence. In this instance, the employer should discuss reporting it to the police; though in most cases, if the complainant does not wish to report it, the employer should respect that. However, in certain circumstances, the employer should consider the risk of reporting it to the police against the complainant’s wishes against the safety of the person, their colleagues and others.

Helpful Resources if You Experience Workplace Sexual Harassment - Acas can advise you with any workplace concerns - Acas are able to talk through your options with you and have a range of recommendations for legal advice. - Equality Human Rights will be able to support you and advise you throughout the entire process. - Rape Crisis England & Wales is the umbrella body for a network of independent Rape Crisis Centres. One to One live chat helplines available. Victim Support offers independent, free and confidential advice 24/7.