- Combating sexual harassment in the workplace

What is sexual harassment, and does it matter?

Under section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 three types of harassment are prohibited in relation to the protected characteristic of sex, as follows:

• Sex-related harassment i.e. unwanted conduct related to the protected characteristic of sex;
• Harassment of a sexual nature i.e. unwanted conduct of a sexual nature; and
• Less favourable treatment based on a person’s rejection of, or submission to, sex-related harassment or sexual harassment.

Harassment is where person A’s behaviour has the purpose or effect of violating person B’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him or her, or less favourable treatment because of a person’s rejection of, or submission to, sex-related harassment or harassment of a sexual nature.

You don’t need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted (Citizens Advice).

In the workplace, sexual harassment can include, but is not limited to:

• Sexual comments or jokes
• Physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault
• Displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature that somebody in the office finds offensive
• Playing sexually suggestive music that somebody in the office finds offensive
• Sending emails with a sexual content.

As an employer, you should launch a prompt investigation following any complaint made, referring directly to the process stipulated in your anti-bullying and harassment policy or grievance policy. It is vital that the correct individual is chosen to investigate the complaint, one that will be impartial and can deal sensitivity with the individuals concerned. You may need to consider amending the individuals reporting structure if, for example, the accused is their direct supervisor or line manager. It is only possible for people to work to resolve and overcome any issue if they are made aware of it, so ensure communication lines area kept open.

It is also important to remember that all levels of sexual harassment are wrong, regardless of the scale of the accusation or the perception of those accused – who may not view their behaviour as inappropriate i.e. having a calendar on their desk of page 3 models.

Whilst an investigation must be launched, the individual being accused has the right to remain as anonymous as possible until any evidence has been found. Unfortunately, there are cases where the allegations are revealed to be untrue, so for the sake of all parties, identities should be kept as discrete as possible.

There are a few things you can do as an employer to try and prevent sexual harassment before it occurs:

Update all policies and relevant documents

You should have up-to-date policies / guidelines on the following to help people understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour:

• Sexual harassment
• General harassment
• How to make a complaint
• How complaints will be dealt with
• How investigations will be carried out

Circulate the documents

All policies, and any amendments, should be provided to employees and made readily-available, should they require access to them, e.g. via the company Intranet, Company Employment Handbook or separate policies.


Once the investigation has been completed and any relevant action undertaken, the company should be prepared to carry out training to ensure you are not fostering an environment that keeps such things ‘hush hush’. For example, use the current media reports regarding high profile individuals accused of historical and recurring sexual harassment as a talking point to open discussions and training with your staff. By speaking about the issue, it will help educate staff on how actions can be perceived very differently by each individual; what one classes as harmless banter another may find sexually condescending and degrading.

Be clear on inter-work relations

It is never advisable for a manager or supervisor to be emotionally or sexually involved with an employee that reports to them. In this regard, both parties are put in a position of vulnerability. Be clear in your policies and communication to employees about what level of relationship, if any, is appropriate between colleagues, as well as the actions that will need to be taken if an intimate personal relationship forms where this is against company policy.

If you would like any more advice or help on how to ensure your employees are kept as protected as possible, or how to deal with sexual harassment complaints, contact us on 01582 883299 or email su@suallen.co.uk.