Sexual harassment in the workplace

A boss touching his female secretary shouldersA report by the TUC (Trades Union Congress) has found that over half of all women have faced sexual harassment in the workplace. Over 1500 women were surveyed in the study carried out in association with the Everyday Sexism Project and it was found that 52% had been subject of unwanted sexual behaviour at work. Among the 16-24 age range, this increased to 63% with 20% stating that it was a manager or figure in authority that harassed them. Examples ranged from inappropriate jokes to groping. In fact, many of the incidents surveyed constituted sexual assault in the eyes of the law.

What is sexual harassment?

The official definition by ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) of ‘sexual harassment’ is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. It goes on to explain that an act can be considered sexual harassment even when unintentional.

Examples include:

  • written or verbal comments of a sexual nature
  • questions about sex life or offensive jokes
  • displaying pornographic or explicit images
  • emails containing content of a sexual nature
  • unwanted physical contact and touching
  • sexual assault

Clearly, sexual assault and any physical abuse or threat are against the law and should be reported to the police. Importantly, if such as complaint is reported to the police, or court proceedings are being pursued, an employer must investigate in the complaint within the workplace also.

Male touching knee of female at workThe law on harassment at work

Fortunately, the Equality Act of 2010 was created not only to protect workers from discrimination but also to protect against sexual harassment and workplace bullying. When it comes to sexual harassment, the law applies equally to both men and women. However, it’s worth pointing out that, just as with cases of discriminations, 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. However, there have been calls for this to be increased to six months, and even if a case is reported much later, employers should take these complaints seriously and carry out a full investigation under the terms of employment and official behaviour at work policies.

Employee HandbookPolicies in the workplace

Regardless of the legislation, employers should have clearly defined policies that make it clear to workers what behaviour is acceptable and what is considered sexual harassment. Employers should provide all recruits with an employment handbook outlining policy on harassment and workplace bullying and make the reporting of incidents as stress-free as possible.

After all, employers are legally responsible for the behaviour of its workers, and, as a result, most sexual harassment cases are not brought against the perpetrators, but against employers.

If a worker wishes to make a complaint regarding sexual harassment, they should first do so according to the policies in place at the organisation where they work. Typically, this will be to a manager or a member of HR with specialist training in this area. A local trade union representative may be more appropriate depending on the circumstances of the complaint.

If dissatisfied with the employer’s handling of your complaint, you then have the right to take the matter to an Employment Tribunal.

At Zoek, we take any form of discrimination, sexual harassment, and workplace bullying very seriously and will only work with organisations with clear policies when it comes to these types of behaviour in the workplace.


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