Sexual Harassment at Work (A Guide!)


Sexual harassment at work is an unlawful form of discrimination involving unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature.

Employers are under a legal duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Equality Act 2010 states that a person’s conduct amounts to sexual harassment if it is either meant to, or has the effect of, violating your dignity. In addition, this legislation seeks to provide victims with protection from working in an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Sexual harassment can have a destructive impact on careers and personal life and cause stress, depression and illness. In some cases, police involvement becomes necessary.

If you believe you have been a victim of sexual harassment at work, there are certain steps you – and your employer – are expected to take.

Sexual harassment at work: Examples of unlawful conduct

There are many types of behaviour, actions and words that would be considered sexual harassment, for example:

  • Sexist emails, gossip, comments and jokes
  • Physical contact or assault
  • Demands and requests for sexual favours (‘propositions’)
  • Comments about your appearance – negative or otherwise
  • Improper questions about your sex life
  • Displaying or sharing sexually explicit or offensive material

The conduct complained of does not even have to be aimed at the victim personally. If a sexist comment is made in an office for example, and it is overheard by someone who takes ‘justifiable’ offence to it, this can constitute indirect sexual harassment, which is also unlawful.

Sexual harassment at work: Is it just harmless banter?

While the views of the person responsible for the alleged harassment are taken into consideration, it’s how the victim perceives the conduct that is the determining factor.

This approach has been made clear by several employment law decisions rejecting a so-called ‘only banter defence’.

One such case involved a female employee told by her male manager to show plenty of cleavage in an interview with him, in order to secure a job promotion. The employee asked that her manager be moved elsewhere but her employer refused to do so, viewing his conduct as trivial. Her employment was terminated when she declined to continue to work with him and she made a successful claim for unfair dismissal.  (Driskel v Peninsula Business Services, 2000)

I believe I am the victim of sexual harassment at work. What should I do?

It’s important to raise the issue at the earliest possible opportunity, either with the person(s) responsible or with your manager. It’s also recommended that you keep a contemporaneous record or diary of the incidents with as much detail as possible, should you need to refer to this as evidence at a later date, along with any attempts made to stop the harassment. Witness details can also prove beneficial.

If you are not satisfied with how the matter is handled within your team you may choose to make a formal complaint (‘grievance’) to your employer so they have an opportunity to investigate and take steps to try and prevent the conduct from continuing.

Your employer should consider taking disciplinary action against the alleged perpetrator. Some employees have access to their Trade Union during this process.

The Police must also take complaints of sexual offences seriously and workplace incidents such as assault and rape should be notified to them. This would be an essential step in order to claim for criminal injuries compensation.

What if my employer doesn’t take my sexual harassment complaint seriously?

If raising a grievance does not have the desired outcome, or your complaint is simply not acted on, you may have grounds to make a claim for compensation in an Employment Tribunal.

This is because you are also protected from being treated less favourably by your employer as a result of the sexual harassment. Your employer is under a duty to take reasonable steps to resolve the issue, these could include:

  • Investigating all complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Providing support to the individual making the complaint throughout the
  • investigation process
  • Taking necessary disciplinary action against the perpetrator
  • Involving the police where required
  • Taking preventative steps against sexual harassment e.g through anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, educating staff on what is expected of personnel and what constitutes unacceptable behaviour

Practically speaking, most claims are made against the employer rather than the individual person responsible. Victims often find themselves being bullied, or harassed – another form of victimisation – as a result of complaining about the conduct. Studies have shown that many incidents go unreported by victims due to fears of being treated differently or losing their job.

If your employer has failed to take reasonable steps, you may also pursue a claim against your employer.

When should I seek legal advice?

In order to protect your interests, take legal advice as soon as any issues at work arise. Instruct a solicitor specialising in employment law, who is experienced in this field and can assess your case and advise on your next steps.

The first step in any potential claim is to notify the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (‘ACAS’). Whilst this is a formal requirement, the need to take part in conciliation is not mandatory.

There are very strict time limits should you wish to proceed with legal action and your case may not be heard if you do not begin your claim in time. A Solicitor can advise you further on this, along with the possible solutions available to your dispute and the likely overall value of any potential claim.



Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

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