What Amounts To Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

What Amounts To Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Just a few days ago people all over the world celebrated International Women's Day. Celebrities, public figures and activists took the opportunity to speak about women's rights and equality - including the right to be respected in the workplace.


Here at Unlock the Law we want to ensure that both men and women have the opportunity to understand their rights and remedies under the law every day. So today we look at the legal protections afforded in the work place to prevent and remedy sexual harassment.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of harassment and is specifically prohibited by the Equality Act 2010. Employers should have a clear policy in place for handling sexual harassment claims, and also make apparent to employees what kind of behaviour would be considered sexual harassment.

Harassment is defined 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 harassment and sexual harassment include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours (which may be of sexual nature to amount to sexual harassment)
  • Insulting someone's sex or sexual orientation
  • Copying memos that are critical about someone to others who do not need to know.
  • Ridiculing or demeaning someone on the grounds of their sex or sexual orientation
  • Unfair treatment
  • Overbearing supervision or abuse of position
  • Unwelcome sexual advances – touching, standing too close, display of offensive materials, asking for sexual favours, making decisions or promises on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected
  • Making threats or comments about job security
  • Deliberately undermining an employee or colleague by overloading them with work or constant criticism

As can be seen from the examples above, harassment does not need to be carried out face to face. It can be through written communication or even visual images such as pictures or videos of a sexual nature or sending or showing pictures of colleagues. It may even be automatic supervision methods – such as computer recording of downtime from work, or recording of telephone conversations if these are not applied to all workers.

Harassment be difficult to recognise and may not be obvious to others. Often people feel like the behaviour that makes them uncomfortable is not extreme enough to make a complaint or that it is 'normal behaviour' in their workplace. They may also have anxiety or concerns about whether their co-workers will think they are weak if they make a complaint or worry that management will not take them seriously.

However, if you are made to feel uncomfortable in your workplace you should take action.

What action can I take if I am being harassed?

In many cases, those carrying out the harassment have not realised the effect their behaviour is having on the victim. The first step in taking action against harassment is to let the culprit know how this is affecting you. If you feel uncomfortable speaking to the person yourself, you should let a manager or union representative know how you feel.

You could also speak to colleagues to see if they are suffering in the same way, or if they have witnessed the unacceptable behaviour against you.

You should keep a diary of all incidences of the unwanted conduct against you including: dates, times, where the incident occurred, what happened, anyone who may have witnessed the actions, how you felt about it. You should also keep any evidence you feel may be relevant such as: reports, letters, memos and notes of any relevant meetings.

It is common for harassment to reveal itself as a pattern of behaviour rather than a one off serious incident.

If making the culprit aware of their behaviour does not incite them to stop, you should make a formal complaint following your employers procedures for doing so. Your employer should be able to give you information about who you should make your complaint to and how to go about doing this.

You can ask a union representative or solicitor to help you make your grievance clearly and concisely – this can help alleviate some of the stress of making the complaint.

After your complaint has been submitted an investigation may be carried out. Following this, your employer will consider different ways of resolving the problem. This could be mediation, counselling or disciplinary action.

Can I take legal action for harassment?

If you have gone through the procedures outlined above to prevent harassment in the workplace, but the problem is not resolved, you could then enforce your legal rights.

Where harassment is unlawful conduct under the Equality Act 2010, you make a claim to an employment tribunal. The tribunal will expect you to have exhausted your options within your place of employment such as using the grievance procedure before you bring your claim. You should keep a record of all the action you have taken. This will be considered when the tribunal hears you claim.

Employment Law - Advice & Help

If you have been forced to resign because of the behaviour and lack of remedy, you could make a claim for constructive dismissal if you have worked for your employer for 24 months or longer.

More Information:

> Free Employment Law Guides

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