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All about Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Last updated on 20th December 2023

Sexual harassment in the workplace is specifically outlawed as a form of unlawful discrimination by the Equality Act 2010.

This means that the law protects people from being sexually harassed at work, including:

  • Job applicants/potential employees.
  • Employees and workers.
  • Contractors and self-employed people.

In 2020, the Government Equalities Office reported that 29% of women had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous 12 months. The report also found that 27% of men had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The perpetrators in both cases were found to be more likely to be men.

Experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment includes any unwanted sexual behaviour or advances. It will usually create a hostile, intimidating, or offensive environment for the recipient and includes physical, verbal and non-verbal behaviour.

This may involve:

  • Sexual comments.
  • Sexual jokes.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances.
  • Requests for sexual favours.
  • Unwanted touching.
  • Indecent exposure.
  • Offensive online communication.
  • Sexual assault.

In section 26 of the Equality Act 2010, the law is set out and sexual harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct specifically of a sexual nature or related to gender reassignment and has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant or violating his or her dignity.”

Sexual harassment can occur in various settings, including:

  • The workplace.
  • Educational institutions.
  • Social gatherings.
  • Online platforms.

Sexual harassment is not limited to one gender or sexual orientation; anyone can be a victim or a perpetrator.

The Equality Act 2010 protects employees against unlawful harassment, bullying and any form of discrimination while at work. The Act makes the employer responsible for removing sexual harassment from the workplace and handling any reports appropriately.

What is sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace refers to any unwanted behaviour or conduct of a sexual nature which creates an uncomfortable, hostile, or intimidating work environment.

This can include:

  • Physical advances.
  • Suggestive comments.
  • Unwanted touching.
  • Any other sexual behaviour that is not wanted or requested by the recipient.

The conduct will usually have happened within the workplace itself, during working hours; however, it can extend to social events outside of working hours, for example a Christmas party or on social media. Sexual harassment does not have to be targeted specifically at another person. For example, displaying pornography in a working environment can be considered sexual harassment.

Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace free of sexual harassment for their employees.

A person who has been the victim of harassment can bring a claim in an employment tribunal and can seek compensation. This has to be made within three months of the last act of harassment that they are complaining about.

To be considered sexual harassment, the behaviour must have either:

  • Created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them, whether this was intended or not; or
  • Violated someone’s dignity, whether this was intended or not.

The person perpetrating the sexual harassment is responsible for their actions; however, the employer also has a responsibility to ensure that they create a safe working environment, free from harassment and abuse. Failure to do this can also lead to claims against you as the employer with potentially large fines to pay.

Who is at risk of sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment within the workplace can happen to women, men and people of any other gender identity or sexual orientation.

Anyone is at risk of being sexually harassed in the workplace; however, some people may be more at risk than others, including:

  • Women – May be more likely to face gender-based discrimination and power imbalances.
  • Members of the LGBTQ+ community – May be more likely to be the victim of sexual harassment due to gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • Young people – May be unaware of their rights or lack experience.
  • Ethnic minorities – May be at higher risk of sexual harassment due to systemic discrimination and prejudice.
  • People with disabilities – May have increased vulnerabilities and therefore be at increased risk of being the victim of harassment or abuse.

It is important for employees to have a safe and inclusive work environment and be aware of who may be at increased risk of being sexually harassed in the workplace and have additional safeguards in place for these groups.

It would be helpful to assess the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace based on the job role, working environment and any other vulnerabilities of the employee.

Woman being sexually harassed at work

Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace can take many forms, which can include:

  • Unwanted sexual comments or attention – This is the most common form of sexual harassment a person can experience. This can include unsolicited gestures and other non-physical conduct, including making written or verbal comments of a sexual nature that may be degrading, humiliating or offensive.
  • Unwanted physical contact – This could be considered as sexual harassment, depending upon the intention and the perception of the person receiving it.
  • Sexual coercion – This is a form of sexual harassment where there is any unwanted sexual activity that makes the victim feel pressurised, tricked, or that they have been forced into it.
  • Gender reassignment harassment – This happens when a person faces unwanted sexual comments and behaviours that are solely based on their gender identity.

Impacts of sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment can have a significant impact on the victim and on the broader workplace environment and its employees.

This can include:

  • It can cause physical and psychological harm to the victim.
  • It can impact on work performance.
  • It can cause people to experience a fear of coming to work.
  • It can cause people to experience workplace anxiety.
  • Someone may leave their job if they do not see any other option. This can then have financial implications for them.
  • It can create a toxic working environment for all employees.
  • It can impact on personal and professional relationships.
  • It can have legal consequences for the perpetrator and the employer.
  • It can cause psychological harm to other employees who may have witnessed the behaviour.

Sexual harassment can have a damaging impact on individuals, organisations and society as a whole and it is important that any concerns about sexual harassment are dealt with quickly and appropriately.

How common is sexual harassment in the workplace?

Unfortunately, sexual harassment in the workplace is a common concern in the UK. In December 2018, the Government announced its plans to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace. These plans included gathering regular data on the prevalence of sexual harassment.

The Government research found that nearly three-quarters of the UK population have experienced at least one form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. The three most commonly experienced sexual harassment behaviours were unwelcome sexual jokes, staring or looks, and sexual comments. Sexual harassment was reported to happen most frequently on the street or walking around, in a club, pub or bar or on public transportation. This makes it more difficult for victims to report the behaviour.

The research found that 29% of those in employment experienced some form of sexual harassment in their workplace or work-related environment in the 12 months prior. Unwelcome sexual jokes and unwelcome staring were the most common forms of sexual harassment experienced in the workplace.

Why does sexual harassment in the workplace go unreported?

There are many reasons why sexual harassment in the workplace can go unreported.

Some of the most common reasons are:

  • Worries about not being believed – A victim may worry that they will not be believed by their boss or co-workers and that they may even be blamed.
  • Fear of retaliation – The victim may worry that if they report the sexual harassment, it may make the harassment worse, or they may suffer other negative consequences, for example being fired or demoted.
  • Feeling embarrassed or ashamed – Some victims may blame themselves for the harassment or feel ashamed or embarrassed, and feel unable to talk about it.
  • Feeling that no action will be taken – The victim may believe that nothing will be done about the harassment, or that the process will be too slow or painful.
  • A lack of knowledge about how to report that they have been sexually harassed – If the procedure for reporting concerns has not been made available to employees, they may not understand their right to report such behaviour.
  • Lack of support within the workplace – If an employee feels isolated, they may not know who to turn to for support.
  • Sexual harassment being normalised within the workplace, their culture or society – If this is the case, a victim may feel unable to report their concerns.
  • Threats or intimidation from the perpetrator – If threats or intimidation have been used, the victim may feel unable to report their concerns.

What to do about sexual harassment in the workplace

There are steps you can take to ensure a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment in the workplace.

This includes:

  • Never ignoring or covering up a complaint of sexual harassment.
  • Ensuring that staff members are encouraged to report sexual harassment when they first experience or notice it, and without hesitation.
  • Making it clear that if an employee carries out sexual harassment, this will be properly investigated and may lead to them losing their job.
  • Making it clear that if a member of staff makes a complaint that is not upheld they will not face any disciplinary action, as long as their complaint is not found to be malicious in nature.

Other steps you can take include:

  • Conducting anonymous surveys so that staff can say if they have experienced or witnessed any sexual harassment. If they have experienced or witnessed any sexual harassment, has this been reported?
  • Gathering information on your employees’ knowledge of procedures that are in place to handle sexual harassment complaints and how they would make a complaint if they needed to do so.
  • Putting something in place where staff can report sexual harassment complaints online or by phone, anonymously if they wish.
  • Encouraging equality, diversity and inclusion when there’s a range of people from different backgrounds. Sexual harassment may be less likely to happen in a workforce that has been educated in this way.
  • Ensuring that there are a number of ways for any instances of sexual harassment to be reported. This may include reporting to a line manager, a more senior manager, other staff who are specially trained in sexual harassment complaints, or a trade union representative.
Reporting to line manager

How to handle sexual harassment in the workplace

Employers must do all they reasonably can to protect staff from sexual harassment and actively take steps to prevent it from happening. This includes creating a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment.

This involves:

  • Ensuring all employees, or anyone who uses your services, know that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any form.
  • Ensuring all policies and procedures are consistent in having zero tolerance of sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Having your policies and procedures about sexual harassment available for staff to easily access, for example in your employee handbook.
  • Providing training to everyone who works for you on how to recognise sexual harassment, and encouraging them to report it.
  • Providing training to someone in HR, or a manager or another member of staff, to offer advice to people who are considering making a sexual harassment complaint.
  • Ensuring that anyone who is involved in a sexual harassment complaint is fully supported. This may include offering counselling or time away from work.

You should take all complaints of sexual harassment seriously and ensure a proper investigation is conducted. Some complaints of sexual harassment may need to be reported to the police.

Other disciplinary actions that may be taken are:

  • Warnings, either verbal or written.
  • Demotion or loss of privileges.
  • Suspension or permanent removal from employment.

Whether you have a specific policy for sexual harassment, or whether you handle any complaints of sexual harassment through your grievance procedure policy, you should ensure that you follow the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures which is the minimum an employer should follow for handling these issues at work.

Individual employees can bring claims of sexual harassment to an employment tribunal. Employment tribunals are independent judicial bodies that deal with claims brought against employers by employees. They are a court of law and a formal process will be followed. The employee must raise the claim within three months of the harassment taking place.

If you have been the victim of sexual harassment, you can contact Victim Support UK who will be able to offer advice and support.

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!



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