Sexual Harassment at Work

  • Employee Conduct
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

Sexual harassment can occur in any workplace. A single claim can result in financial and reputational damages to your organisation. Peninsula helps combat this.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment in the workplace is a reality that all employers may have to face.

You might have a one-gendered workforce and think you’re safe. You might have only two employees and think you’re safe. You might have rigorous HR systems in place and think you are safe.

But sexual harassment at work can occur in any workplace, regardless of size, industry, or the nature of your workforce. A single claim can land you in front of a tribunal, resulting in financial and reputational damages to your organisation.

With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know to combat it.

What is sexual harassment?

When considering what counts as sexual harassment, the answer is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It’s considered harassment if:

  • It violates someone’s dignity
  • Makes someone feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • It creates a hostile or offensive environment.

Many believe that the victim has to object to the behaviour for it to be ‘unwanted.’ This isn’t true. If it fulfils any of the criteria above, it has the potential to be harassment.

Sexual harassment examples

So you know the definition, but what specifically forms this kind of behaviour?

Here are some examples of sexual harassment in the workplace in the UK:

  • Sharing pornographic images or videos
  • Sharing sexual images or videos, these can feature any body parts
  • Making inappropriate sexual gestures
  • Inappropriate/unwanted touching
  • Suggestive notes, messages or emails
  • Suggestions for unwanted sexual acts

A common question we often hear is: “Can sexual harassment be verbal?”

The simple answer is ‘yes’. If the effect or intention violates the victim’s dignity it is harassment. If it creates a negative environment for them to work in, then it is harassment.

Verbal harassment can include an employee feeling at risk of sexual violence.

Another question is “Can women sexually harass men?”

A common myth is that harassment is strictly perpetrated by men towards women. Or, it isn’t taken seriously otherwise. This isn’t true.

Any individual can harass another regardless of gender or sexual orientation. So yes, women can sexually harass men. Men can sexually harass other men. And, women can sexually harass other women.

Sexual harassment law in the UK

What does the law actually say?

There isn’t a specific set of sexual harassment regulations. Instead, the Equality Act 2010 covers the issue, which defines harassment as a form of discrimination.

It also dictates that employers are legally responsible if an employee is sexually harassed at work by another employee.

Sexual harassment law in the UK also defines when individuals can complain. Employees have the right to raise an issue when they experience direct harassment.

They may also complain if it wasn’t directed at them but creates an offensive environment. Or, if it harasses them by association.

Reporting sexual harassment

If a member of staff feels harassed, they should speak out and receive encouragement. Harassment should never be silent.

Under the Equality Act 2010, the perception of the victim is vital.

Therefore, if the victim feels harassed, or witnesses harassment, they can make a complaint.

How to prevent sexual harassment at work

It should clear within company policies that any form of sexual harassment is unacceptable. Company policies should also state that there will be a full investigation into any allegations.

These investigations should result in disciplinary procedures.

It should be clear who individuals should make the complaint to, and whether it should be in writing.

Employees should be able to make a harassment complaint to:

  • An HR representative
  • Supervisor or manager
  • A trade union representative

It’s helpful to keep notes on any incidents. These help with any investigations. They can also aid recollections of what happened, particularly if the incidents were distressing.

What is the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment?

The more serious question is the following: “What is the difference between sexual abuse and sexual harassment?”

The term ‘sexual assault’ is often used interchangeably with others. This includes harassment, which can make its exact definition confusing.

Some acts are arguably both assault and harassment. For example, unwanted touching, kissing or groping.

However, other acts, such as rape, are certainly sexual assault, abuse and harassment.

It is important to note that both harassment and assault are both criminal acts.

Legal implications of sexual harassment in the workplace

If an employee raises a complaint, it depends on the facts of the case how you should approach it.

For example, it might be appropriate to suspend individuals until conducting a full investigation.

Other options include:

  • Informal discussions
  • Counselling
  • Mediation
  • Mandatory harassment training

If an investigation shows there has been an incident of sexual harassment, refer to your disciplinary procedure.

If handled poorly by your company, you could face a claim for sexual discrimination and sexual misconduct.

Sexual harassment facts in the workplace

A study carried out by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) surveyed over 1,500 women about their workplace experiences.

Shockingly, over half of the women surveyed said they were the victims of unwanted sexual behaviour directed towards them.

Those that are unconvincing of how serious sexual harassment in the workplace can be should consider the following.

Sexual harassment compensation in the UK can result in an unlimited fine from the employment tribunal. It can also include an additional amount for injury to feelings compensation.

For more serious cases there’s also the possibility of criminal charges for sexual harassment. Criminal charges such as these are as serious, if not more so, as personal injury in the workplace.

If the police do become involved, make sure you fully co-operate with their investigation.

This includes providing any evidence you have to assist. This highlights how important it is to properly document any allegations.

Sexual harassment at work cases in the UK

Below are some real-life examples of sexual harassment cases in the workplace that went to an employment tribunal.

Cadogan Hotel Partners v Ozog

Ozog, a waitress brought claims for sexual harassment and sex discrimination. The head waiter had kissed her on the hand, and had subsequently taken off his belt and approached her asking “Do you want this body?”

The employment tribunal found the hand-kissing a “mild form of sexual harassment". The belt incident was direct sex discrimination and harassment. Both made Ozog “very uncomfortable”.

Moonsar v Fiveways Express Transport

An employee brought a complaint of sex discrimination to tribunal. They argued that the presence of the pornographic images on a screen in the room where she worked amounted to harassment.

The type of behaviour in question (pornography on computer screens) occasioned by male workers in the presence of a female worker was an obvious affront to any woman’s dignity.

Munchkin Restaurant v Karmazyn

During their employment, female employees were all regularly subjected to sexual comments. They received questions about their sex lives by Moss, the (male) 73-year old owner of the restaurant.

They were also made to wear short skirts and were sometimes shown explicit photographs and catalogues of sex toys and gadgets. They attempted to complain to Moss about this behaviour but he became angry when they did so.

Eventually, all the women resigned. They brought tribunal claims for sexual harassment against the company and Moss personally.

The employer claimed that they never objected to his behaviour. However, even on the occasions when the employees had initiated sexual banter, they had only done so as a coping strategy.

People will often put up with intolerable behaviour and not object to it or complain about it. They do so because of constraining circumstances. Such lack of complaint does not mean that the particular conduct is acceptable.

Legal advice in a working environment

Handling sexual harassment can be difficult, even if you have your own HR team.

Peninsula can provide the help you need, whether you’re seeking legal counsel for expenses or an employee’s undergoing a tribunal.

For expert assistance with anything HR, get in touch with our team of specialists at 0800 028 2420.


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