Sexual Harassment at Work

By Amanda Beattie
10 Nov 2022

Sexual harassment isn't always easy to spot or remove in a business. But, every employer has a duty of care to protect their staff from all forms of harassment whilst at work.

Failing to do so may lead to claims being raised against you to an employment tribunal. This could lead to losing employees, financial, and business damages.

In this guide, we'll look at what sexual harassment is, the different forms it can take, and how to manage it in your company.

What is workplace sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct or unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature, with the sole purpose of intimidating and affecting someone's dignity. It can be carried out by people of the same sex, different sex, or anyone of any gender.

Who can experience sexual harassment?

This form of harassment can happen to men, women, and people of any gender identity or sexual orientation. Unfortunately, this behaviour is prevalent in UK workplaces and is a serious problem.

So as an employer, you shouldn't allow a hostile working environment to thrive within your business. Be aware that employees can also experience sexual harassment from customers, clients, or members of the public.

Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment can take many forms, all as serious as each other. So to be able to manage it successfully in your workplace, you need to become familiar with them.

Let's discuss them in more detail:

Criminal behaviour

Many criminal acts constitute sexual harassment and are against the law. For example:

  • Sexual assault.
  • Indecent exposure.
  • Offensive online communications.

If any of the above actions are taking place in your workplace or by one of your employees, you must contact the police.

Unwanted physical contact

This form of sexual harassment is commonplace in many workplaces. This can be a hug or kiss on the cheek, but to the person receiving them - it isn't always welcome.

Some employees may think there's no harm in a hug. However, this can be classed as sexual harassment.

Unwanted sexual comments or attention

This is probably the most common form of sexual harassment someone can suffer. It refers to unsolicited gestures and other non-physical conduct. Including making written or verbal comments of a sexual nature that may be degrading, humiliating or offensive.

An example of this is a male employee receiving comments due to his uniform.

Be aware that sexual harassment doesn't have to be targeted at another person. For example, displaying pornography in a working environment.

Sexual coercion

This form of sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual activity that makes the victim feel pressurised, tricked, or forced into it.

An example of sexual coercion is a female employee facing bullying and threats of termination because she rejected a colleague's sexual advances.

Gender reassignment harassment

Gender reassignment harassment happens when a person faces unwanted sexual comments and behaviours solely based on their gender identity.

This can include comments of a derogatory nature about bodies or sexual activities, relating to their sex or gender.

For example, a nursery teacher who is trans receives jokes from a parent of a child. The parent may not have a sexual interest in the teacher, however it's still harassment.

Does it count as sexual harassment if it happens outside the workplace?

Yes, sexual harassment still counts if it happens outside the workplace. However, disciplinary action should be taken on a case-by-case basis.

For example, sexual harassment can take place at Christmas parties, work social events, or on social media.

If this happens, employers must still take this behaviour very seriously.

What are the effects of sexual harassment?

Being sexually harassed at work can affect employees in many ways, such as increased stress. But there are many more, so as an employer you need to understand them.

Some of the effects are:

  • Victims can feel ashamed, humiliated, undermined, and frightened to come to work.
  • A lasting effect on someone's mental health and working career.
  • An effect on someone's earnings due to them feeling like there's no option but to leave their job.
  • A severe effect on someone's self-confidence.

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to create an environment free from harassment of all forms. To do so, you need to understand the legislation surrounding these issues.

UK regulations on sexual harassment in the workplace

In the UK, some regulations are in place to protect anyone from harassment of all forms, including that of a sexual nature.

The Equality Act 2010 protects employees against unlawful harassment, bullying, and discrimination whilst at work. The act makes the employer responsible for removing sexual harassment from their company.

Nine protected characteristics are outlined in the act. They are:

  • Gender reassignment.
  • Marriage or civil partnership.
  • Pregnancy or maternity.
  • Race.
  • Religion or beliefs.
  • Sexual orientation.

Employees are protected from unfair treatment or harassment if they hold any of the above characteristics.


A man with his head in his hands


Who is responsible for sexual harassment in the workplace?

Anyone who harasses someone sexually is responsible for their actions. However, as an employer you have a duty to make all your employees feel safe at work.

Failure to do so is against employment law and the Equality Act 2010. This could lead to claims being raised against you - with heavy fines to pay, as well as reputational damages.

How to manage sexual harassment at work

Employers have a duty to support their workers if they're ever the victims of harassment in the workplace. This includes sexual harrassment.

There are reasonable steps you can take to help remove sexual harassment from your company. Let's discuss them in more detail:

Create a sexual harassment policy

You need to create clear and concise anti-harassment policies and procedures.

The policy should include the reporting process an employee should follow if they've experienced sexual harassment. As well as potential consequences for the guilty party and how to prevent it from happening.

This information should be included within the employee handbook. The policy should be signed by each employee before starting employment.

Support employees who have suffered harassment

You should make an effort to support employees who have been victim of abuse or sexual harassment. This may include offering counseling or time away from work.

Each person will deal with the effects of harassment differently, so you must be flexible and versatile with how you support them. You shouldn't try and force them to deal with it in a way that you want them to, or within a certain timeframe.

Deal with every sexual harassment complaint

You need to deal with any unfair treatment or incidents of sexual harassment as soon as possible. You must make a record of any complaints, investigations, and evidence to do with an incident of sexual harassment. This includes:

  • The names of the people involved.
  • The dates the harassment occurred.
  • The nature and frequency of the harassment, for example daily or monthly.
  • The action taken.
  • Any follow-up meetings.

You must treat each and every complaint with the dignity and respect they deserve. Failure to do so will decrease your employee's confidence in you that you're not willing to investigate and take action.

Many employers will lose their best staff if they don't deal with harassment in the workplace.

Create an inclusive workplace culture

You shouldn't allow an offensive environment that allows harassment to thrive. You must prioritise raising awareness of harassment and bullying, and how it can make people feel.

Creating an inclusive workforce will lead to your employees feeling comfortable, happy, and more likely to stay with your company for a while. This increases morale and productivity.

Provide sexual harassment training

Make sure you provide training to all your employees, line managers, and directors regarding sexual harassment. The training should include the effects of sexual harassment, the signs to look out for, and reasonable steps that can be taken to reduce it.

Provide annual refresher training to update your staff on any changes to law or legislation.

What are the disciplinary actions for sexual harassment?

Once the relevant sexual harassment investigation has been concluded, there are different disciplinary actions you can take. All being dependent on the severity of the incident.

In some circumstances of serious sexual harassment, you may need to contact the police. However, if you're contacting the police, you must talk to the employee before doing so.

Can an employee raise a claim to an employment tribunal over sexual harassment?

Yes, individual employees can bring claims of sexual harrassment to an employment tribunal. Your employee must raise the claim within three months of the harassment taking place.

The following are all disciplinary actions you can hand down to employees guilty of harassment:

  • Warnings: either formal or verbal. You should keep a record of all formal warnings given to an employee.
  • Loss of position or privileges: you may choose to demote an employee. This action is typically handed down to promoted employees. Less severe options are a loss of privileges, such as bonus pay or parking permits.
  • Loss of salary: Severe misconduct or repeated harassment may lead to a reduction in salary. However, this must be included in your policy.
  • Temporary or permanent removal: You may choose to suspend or terminate an employee's employment. This is the most serious form of disciplinary action and you should take great consideration before taking this option.

You should never victimise or treat an employee differently after they've made a complaint of sexual harassment. This is against employment law.

If an employee faces sexual harassment at work and feels the only option is to resign, you may face claims of constructive dismissal.

Get expert guidance on sexual harassment at work with Croner

Sexual harassment takes many forms, and it isn't always easy to spot. But, every employer has a duty of care to protect their staff from all forms of harassment whilst at work.

Failing to do so may lead to claims being raised against you at an employment tribunal. This could lead to losing employees, and financial and business damages.

We help guide the employer through the process of dealing with sexual harassment in your company. Call Croner today for immediate expert advice on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Amanda Beattie

Amanda represents corporate clients and large public bodies, including complex discrimination and whistleblowing claims. Amanda also drafts and delivers bespoke training regarding all aspects of employment law, including ‘mock tribunal’ events; in addition she also frequently drafts employment law articles for various publications for Croner and their clients.

Get expert views & insights delivered directly to your inbox