Equality Discrimination

Sexual Harassment at Work

By Amanda Beattie
20 Jan 2020

Unfortunately, sexual harassment in the workplace is a reality all employers may have to face. You might have a one-gendered workforce and think you’re safe.

You might have only two employees and think you’re safe. You might have rigorous HR systems in place and think you’re safe.

But sexual harassment can occur in any workplace, regardless of size, industry, or the nature of your workforce. And, a single claim can land you in front of an employment tribunal, resulting in financial and reputational damages to your organisation.

With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know to combat it.


What is sexual harassment?

Any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It’s harassment if:

  • It violates someone’s dignity.
  • Makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, or humiliated.
  • It create a hostile or offensive environment.

Many believe the victim has to actively object to the behaviour for ‘unwanted.’ This isn’t true. If it fulfils any of the criteria above, it has the potential to be harassment.


What is sexual harassment?

Here are some sexual harassment examples to give you an idea:

  • Sharing pornographic or sexual images or videos.
  • Making inappropriate sexual gestures.
  • Inappropriate/unwanted touching.
  • Suggestive notes, messages or emails.

But can sexual harassment be verbal? Yes. If the effect or intention violates the victim’s dignity, or creates a negative environment for them to work in, it can constitute harassment.


Can women sexually harass men?

A reasonably common myth is harassment is strictly perpetrated by men towards women—or isn’t taken seriously otherwise. This isn’t true.

Any individual can harass another regardless of gender or sexual orientation. So yes, women can sexually harass men.

Men can sexually harass other men. And, women can sexually harass other women.


Sexual harassment law

What does the law say? Well, firstly, there isn’t a specific set of sexual harassment regulations.

Instead, you can find the issue in the Equality Act 2010. It defines harassment as a form of discrimination.

It also dictates you’re legally responsible if an employee is sexually harassed at work by another employee.

Sexual harassment law in the UK also defines when individuals can complain. If someone directs harassment at one of your employees, they’ve the right to raise a complaint.

But, they may also complain if it wasn’t directed at them but creates an offensive environment, or if it harasses them by association.


How to report sexual harassment

If a member of staff experiences harassment, you should encourage them to speak out. Don’t’ leave victims of harassment to suffer in silence.

Under the Equality Act 2010, the perception of the victim is key.

So, if they experience harassment, or witness it, they can make a complaint.


How to file a sexual harassment complaint

Include the harassment process in your policies and/or handbook for staff. In this, you should outline who the individual should make the complaint to—and whether they should provide it in writing.

Employees should be able to make a harassment complaint to:

  • A HR representative.
  • Supervisor or manager.
  • A trade union representative.

It’s helpful to keep notes on the incident(s). This not only helps with any investigations, but will help you recall what happened, particularly if the incident(s) was distressing.


Sexual harassment vs sexual discrimination

What’s the difference? Harassment is one form of discrimination. Sex discrimination can take many different forms, but there are four main categorisations:

  1. Direct discrimination of employees: An individual who treats others less favourably due to a protected characteristic.
  2. Indirect discrimination of employees: When an individual treats someone the same, but it has a negative effect on them due to a protected characteristic.
  3. Harassment of employees: This is where a staff member causes a colleague distress—such as through intimidation, shame, or a violation.
  4. Victimisation of employees: Involves an employer’s action against a staff member due to the latter bringing a complaint against a business action.

You can also find out more about protected characteristics and their role alongside the Equality Act 2010.

For a full breakdown of each of the above, visit our sexual discrimination page.


Sexual harassment vs sexual assault

The more serious and pressing question is the following: “What’s the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment?”

The term ‘sexual assault’ is often used interchangeably with others (including harassment) which can make its exact definition confusing.

You can classify some acts as both assault and harassment. For example, unwanted touching, kissing or groping.


What are the consequences of sexually harassing someone?

If an employee raises a complaint, it really depends on the facts of the case how you should approach it. For example, it might be appropriate to suspend individuals while the investigation is underway. Other options include:

In cases where an investigation shows there has been an incident of sexual harassment, you should refer to your disciplinary procedure.

For more serious cases there’s also the possibility of criminal charges for sexual harassment. If the police do become involved, make sure you co-operate with their investigation fully, providing any evidence you have to assist.


Expert support

If you are dealing with a sexual harassment situation at work, and are unsure what your next step should be, speak to a Croner expert today on 0808 145 3380.

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.

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