Sexual harassment

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.

It has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

Something can still be considered sexual harassment even if the alleged harasser didn't mean for it to be. It also doesn't have to be intentionally directed at a specific person.

Experiencing sexual harassment is one of the most difficult situations a worker can face.

All workers are protected from sexual harassment in the workplace. This applies to one-off incidents and ongoing incidents. This protection comes from both employment law and criminal law, depending on the circumstances involved.

How does sexual harassment happen?

Sexual harassment can happen in any number of ways, including:

  • written or verbal comments of a sexual nature, such as remarks about an employee's
  • appearance, questions about their sex life or offensive jokes
  • displaying pornographic or explicit images
  • emails with content of a sexual nature
  • unwanted physical contact and touching
  • sexual assault.

An employer should make clear to workers what sort of behaviour would be considered sexual harassment and that it is unacceptable.

Sexual assault and physical threats

Some types of sexual harassment, such as sexual assault and other physical threats, are a criminal matter as well as an employment matter.

Criminal matters should be reported to the police.

  • Call 999 if you or someone else is in immediate danger, or if the crime is in progress.
  • Call 101 to contact the police if the crime is not an emergency.

If a complaint is reported to police, or criminal court proceedings are being pursued, an employer must still investigate the complaint as an employment matter. An employer may then follow its disciplinary procedure, without awaiting the outcome of criminal proceedings, provided this can be done fairly.

Who can it happen to?

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone at any time, in any place. This includes the workplace. However, there are many things an employer and its workers can do to minimise the risk.

Sexual harassment can happen to men or women.

Workers can be sexually harassed by people of the same sex or the opposite sex.

Sexual harassment can come from anyone, including:

  • someone on the same team
  • a supervisor or manager
  • another member of staff
  • someone else that a worker comes into contact with while they are working.

Sexual harassment can come from the owner or someone in a position of power or influence. This might limit the ability of an organisation to deal with the problem internally. In these circumstances, a worker should check if workplace policies address the situation. For example, a complaint of harassment against a head teacher could be handled by the school governors. Where this doesn't appear possible, workers are advised to seek further advice and support.

Historic allegations

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.

Sometimes a complaint of sexual harassment will be reported much later than this. An employer should always take such a complaint very seriously. They should handle things in a way that is sensitive and fair to the worker who has made the complaint, anybody who has witnessed it and anybody who is being accused of sexual harassment. It is usually helpful for the worker and the employer to discuss what outcome is desired in these circumstances - sometimes it might be that the worker now feels confident enough to speak out and wants to make sure nobody else in their workplace experiences what they went through.

To find out how to try to prevent future incidents occurring see the Acas guide, pdf icon Prevent discrimination: support equality [405kb].

Where complaints of sexual harassment include sexual assault or physical threats, they could be considered under criminal law and this can involve different time limits. Workers are advised to seek further advice and support here.

Making a complaint of sexual harassment

Any worker who feels they have been sexually harassed, or any worker who feels they have seen sexual harassment take place, can make a complaint of sexual harassment.

A worker should check any policies their organisation might have on sexual harassment to see who they should make their complaint to. Many organisations will suggest complaints can be made by writing a grievance letter to appropriate supervisors or managers, but there might be others too, including a:

  • member of Human Resources or Personnel with specialist training
  • named 'fair treatment contact'
  • local trade union representative.

Before speaking to someone, it is often useful for the worker to make notes about the incident involved, especially if recalling the incident is particularly upsetting.

Workers are usually expected to try and resolve the problem in the workplace first. If that doesn't work, they need to contact the Acas Helpline before going to an employment tribunal.

Handling a complaint of sexual harassment

All complaints of sexual harassment should be taken very seriously and handled fairly and sensitively.

Experiencing sexual harassment is often extremely emotional and distressing for the worker involved. This means an employer should make reporting such a matter as stress-free as possible. In most cases this involves simple things like making sure there is plenty of time to discuss the matter and finding a private space to meet.

Employers must allow the worker to be accompanied by a work colleague or a trade union representative at a grievance meeting involving allegations of sexual harassment. Sometimes it can help to allow the worker to be accompanied by a friend or family member but only if the employment contract permits it, or at the discretion of the employer.

It is also likely to be very distressing for a worker to be accused of sexual harassment. Whilst a fair and thorough investigation will need to be carried out, accused workers should also be offered support and sensitivity.

All complaints should be handled consistently in line with existing policies, procedures and the Discipline and grievance - Acas Code of Practice.

Acas can assist employers with more complex sexual harassment matters including help on updating or creating workplace sexual harassment policies. More information can be found in the Acas guide, pdf icon Discrimination: what to do if it happens [335kb], or by calling 0300 123 1150 and asking to speak with a senior adviser.

Getting support

Samaritans - A charity who can provide emotional support for workers who are struggling to cope and need somebody to listen to them. They can be found at www.samaritans.org.

Police - Call 999 if you or someone else is in immediate danger, or if the crime is in progress. Call 101 to contact the police if the crime is not an emergency. For the England, Wales and Northern Ireland police visit www.police.uk or Scotland at www.scotland.police.uk.