What is sexual harassment?

For many employers and employees, the days of people being sexually objectified at work are still a living memory

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Friday, Jun 14, 2024

The first UK law that directly addressed sexual harassment, an amendment of the Discrimination Act 1975, was passed only as recently as 1986.

That original law defined sexual harassment simply as “unwanted conduct on the ground of a person’s sex” or “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature”. Yet sexual harassment laws have evolved since then, in parallel with efforts to make UK workplaces fairer and safer for women. Here’s what you need to know.

How UK law defines sexual harassment

Today, sexual harassment is covered by the Equality Act 2010. The law now defines sexual harassment more broadly as behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended, related to their sex.

According to the Equality Act, harassing behaviour can include:

  • Showing an employee or co-worker unwanted attention
  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Treating an employee or co-worker unfairly
  • Regularly undermining a competent employee or co-worker

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to face-to-face interaction, either. Harassment online, by phone, or by letter is also against the law.

Who can claim sexual harassment?

We often assume women are the most likely victims of sexual harassment, and statistics show they are. It’s estimated that 68% of women will experience it in their lifetime (Ministry of Defence, 2015).

But women aren’t the only people legally protected against sexual harassment. In a recent survey over 25% of men claimed to have experienced sexual harassment, although most didn’t report it (Everyday Sexism Project, 2013).

As well as male and female employees, the Equality Act also protects job applicants, apprentices, and contract workers.

Examples of sexual harassment

So, what kinds of behaviour should you be aware of — and work to prevent — in your workplace and outside it?

In the workplace

Behaviours in the workplace that might constitute sexual harassment include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances: Touching or even standing too close can be intimidating or frightening for the person receiving the advances, and can amount to sexual harassment.
  • Displaying offensive materials: Showing pornography or other photos, videos or writings can offend and distress employees — and it’s really not appropriate for the workplace anyway. Be aware of explicit jokes and videos shared by your staff via email.
  • Demanding or asking for sexual favours: While the stereotypical scenario sees a male manager taking advantage of a female employee, this kind of harassment can also go in all directions between genders and levels of hierarchy.
  • Making decisions based on whether sexual advances are accepted or rejected: Decisions might include whether or not to hire, fire, promote, or approve a pay rise to the person being harassed.

Outside the workplace

Sexual harassment doesn’t have to take place at your premises for the employee to be protected. Harassment that takes place at work social events, or during business trips, are also covered.

When is sexual harassment not the employer’s responsibility?

As an employer, you have a duty to prevent sexual harassment of your employees, by your employees. Not only does sexual harassment hurt morale and your reputation, but the victim can bring a claim against their harasser and your organisation. You need to show you took all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment to defend such a claim.

Employers aren’t responsible for harassment in the workplace if it was carried out by a non-employee, such as a customer. But you still need to take action following complaints about harassment by non-employees, or you could still be found responsible at tribunal.

Lucy Cobb

Employment Law Specialist

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