Sexual harassment may be defined as ‘unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the recipient’s dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the recipient’.
Prior to anti-discrimination legislation, sexual harassment became normalised in workplace culture, with wide acceptance socially and culturally. As a result, it has been very difficult to change behaviour, perceptions and attitudes around it. It involves collusion by all genders, in terms of acceptance, motivation and dismissing the experiences of victims. Without a collaborative approach across genders to address the problem it is difficult to see how workplace cultures can truly be transformed to ensure that environments are free from sexual harassment and safe for everyone to work in.
Sexual harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. It is commonplace in organisations, with an estimated 68% of women in the UK experiencing sexual harassment in their lifetime.
Employers are responsible for ensuring that employees do not face harassment in their workplace and that they build a culture which respects the dignity of employees and those who use their services.
Sexual harassment is prohibited in all workplace contexts and related activities including office functions and parties, training courses and conferences. The employer has a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to protect their employees and will be legally liable if they fail to do so. This includes sexual harassment perpetrated by agency staff, contractors and service users.
10 points to remember in the workplace
- A person can experience unwanted conduct from someone of the same or different sex.
- Unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature can include verbal (sexual comments or jokes, sending emails of a sexual nature), non-verbal (suggestive looks) and physical conduct (inappropriate touching, sexual assault).
- Sexual harassment has the purpose or effect of violating dignity, humiliation, intimidation and creating a hostile environment for the individual concerned.
The recipient of the behaviour decides whether or not it is unwanted.
- Unwanted conduct can be one-off. It does not need to be repeated to constitute sexual harassment.
- Unwanted conduct does not need to be directed at a person. It can be witnessed or overheard.
- It does not matter whether the conduct is acceptable to others or is common in the person’s work environment.
- Sexual interaction that is invited, mutual or consensual is not sexual harassment because it is not unwanted.
- Sexual conduct that has been welcomed in the past can become unwanted.
- No workplace is immune to sexual harassment and a lack of reported cases does not necessarily mean that they have not occurred.
- Complaints of sexual harassment will usually only be considered at an employment tribunal if the worker makes a claim within three months of when the incident took place.
The responsibility of employers
All employers are expected to have three main measures in place:
- An anti-harassment policy that is communicated to workers.
- The anti-harassment policy must be effectively implemented, monitored and reviewed.
- An appropriate procedure for reporting harassment, protecting victims of harassment and taking action if harassment occurs.
Impact of sexual harassment on the individual
People are different in how they respond to sexual harassment and how they deal with it. This can be because of previous experiences, the type of visible support there is in the workplace and the general culture of the organisation. Studies have shown that depending on the severity of the incident, the impact can range from leaving a job, developing mental health concerns, feeling scared and embarrassed, loosing confidence and avoiding work. Employers should remind all staff of their zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment in the workplace.
What you can do as an employee
- Do not be a bystander: It’s easy to turn a blind eye to an incident when you feel you aren’t directly involved. But failing to address inappropriate behavior that you’ve witnessed can still cause harm. By saying something simple like “That is making me uncomfortable,” you can show the harasser and the person being harassed that you’re aware of what just happened.
- Correct harassers even when targets are not present: active gender inclusion means making sure that when you hear sexually offensive comments when targets aren’t around, you still raise it as an issue and address it with the perpetrators.
- Be an ally: reflect on your own presumptions about gender, stereotypes and prejudices, attend awareness training sessions, ask for unconscious bias training for your team or work area. Listen and be approachable to those who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Very useful 8 page document covering all the main issues around sexual harassment in the workplace: Sexual harassment and the law: guidance for employers, Equality and Human Rights Commission, UK
Useful summary of the law and guidance to help put together anti-harassment policies: Sexual harassment guidance from ACAS UK
Summary from a global perspective of sexual harassment in the workplace from UCLA: Nearly 235 million women worldwide lack legal protections from sexual harassment at work