Sexual harassment is still an issue in the workplace.

Sexual harassment at work is an abuse of power - it pollutes the working environment and can have a devastating effect on the health, confidence, morale and performance of workers who are subject to it as well as those who witness it.

Frequently asked questions about sexual harassment at work

Our employment rights specialists have answered the most frequently asked questions about sexual harassment in the workplace. Take a look at our answers below:


What sexual harassment means

Sexual harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

The definition of sexual harassment is not confined to conduct of a sexual nature. Unwanted conduct related to sex is also unlawful where it has the same purpose or effect.

It therefore covers a wide range of behaviours from written words of abuse, sharing inappropriate comments on social media, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings, and sending emails containing material of a sexual nature to unwelcome sexual advances, such as touching and deliberately brushing up against someone. Unwelcome comments about dress or appearance and sexual assault can also amount to sexual harassment.


Who is protected?

Protection from harassment applies to job applicants as well as employees and workers. It also covers contract workers and agency workers. It may also apply to those who are self-employed, such as freelancers, provided they are not genuinely in business on their own account.

It can also apply after someone has left employment. For example, where a woman complains that she was subject to sexual harassment at an appeal hearing, and the appeal hearing takes place after her dismissal.

Witnesses to harassment are also protected.


What does the law say about sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. When considering a complaint of sexual harassment, an employment tribunal will consider the perception of the complainant, the other circumstances of the case and whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.

It may also infringe the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, where it creates an unsafe working environment posing a risk to health, safety and welfare.

Conduct which occurs on more than one occasion, which is calculated to have the effect of causing “alarm or distress” and was foreseeable or ought to have been foreseen, is unlawful under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Sexual harassment may also amount to a breach of contract, and in particular a breach of the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence.


How can sexual harassment be prevented?

Employers have clear responsibilities to ensure the protection of the dignity of women and men at work.

The sexual harassment law also means an employer is liable for acts of harassment by employees.

An employer can defend a claim of sexual harassment at work if it can show that it took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the harassment, such as by:

  • Providing equal opportunities training;
  • Having a sexual harassment policy in place;
  • Ensuring all employees are aware of the policy; and
  • Dealing effectively with complaints.

For the steps to be “reasonable” they must be effective in preventing harassment. Simply having a sexual harassment policy in place on its own is unlikely to be effective, and dealing with an employee accused of harassment after a complaint has been made does not amount to a reasonable step, since the action is taken after the event.

Employers must ensure that they do not victimise a worker who raises a complaint of harassment, for example where a worker has key responsibilities or duties removed from her because she made a complaint. 

Public sector authorities have a particular duty to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace, advance equality of opportunities between men and women, and foster good relationships between men and women.

“Due regard” requires public sector employers to be proactive by taking steps to prevent harassment as an integral part of their decision making processes, for example when introducing a new policy or procedure.


What should I do if i'm subject to sexual harassment?

Contact your union representative

Unions recognise that workers subject to sexual harassment can feel isolated and alone in the workplace.

Keep a diary of what was said or done

It is rare that there are any witnesses to sexual harassment, so it is vital that you keep contemporaneous notes recording what was said or done, who said or did the act, when they said it and where they said it. You should also record how the act, or what was said, made you feel.

Object – saying “Stop” or “No”

This is easier said than done.  If you feel unable to do this, contact your union representative and they can approach the harasser on your behalf to make clear that their approaches are unwanted and unacceptable.

Lodge a grievance

Your union can help you do this. It can also help to gather evidence to support your grievance. For example, if there are others who have been subject to similar conduct; check if there are any witnesses.

Your union can also review policies and procedures to make sure the employer is:

  • Actively implementing them;
  • Ensuring that everyone in the workplace is trained in identifying harassment and that it is unacceptable in the workplace;
  • Monitoring incidents of harassment.

Time limits

The deadline for lodging a complaint in an employment tribunal is 3 months less one day of the act.  However, ACAS must be contacted first before a claim can be lodged to start what is known as the early conciliation process. Early conciliation affects the time limits for lodging an employment tribunal claim, so it is important you contact your union representative as soon as you are subject to sexual harassment.


Your union is there to support you in the workplace and will challenge employers where there are unacceptable practices and sexual harassment in the workplace.