A recent TUC survey showed that 52% of women have been sexually harassed at work, with the majority of these failing to report it. Although employers may feel they have considered this issue before, these results show that sexual harassment is still a major issue in the workplace.

Workers are protected by discrimination laws against unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and unwanted conduct due to the person’s sex or gender where this has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, degrading, humiliating or hostile environment. This can cover a wide number of acts from making jokes about a person’s sex life to requiring sexual favours to gain a promotion. Importantly, whether harassment occurs or not depends on the person complaining so something which may be found funny by one person could be viewed as sexual harassment by another.

With large numbers of staff, employers may think it is impossible to control the behaviour of everyone. Importantly, employers will be vicariously liable for any acts of sexual harassment by their employees during the course of their employment, including events which extend the working day such as works drinks, so should be taking all reasonable steps to prevent this. Steps can include training all staff on acceptable conduct and talk at work and having, and enforcing, an anti-harassment policy.

The survey showed a worrying number of employees did not report the harassment, either because they did not believe it would be tackled or because they were too embarrassed. In larger companies, employees can often be confused about who to bring concerns to and, if this is the case, this will only encourage employees not to report sexual harassment meaning it will continue. To avoid this risk, the anti-harassment policy can provide for a nominated person or job role to whom employees can make complaints of sexual harassment to. A lack of encouragement to employees to bring up any issues would encourage a view that employers are facilitating the harassment and may also lead the employee to make a complaint directly to the employment tribunal.

Dealing with complaints of harassment can be difficult so employers should provide training for managers and seniors on how to tackle these. Again, a failure to deal with complaints or address them properly with offenders will lead to an increase in harassment as employees believe they can get away with it.

Lead Business Partner Dominique Stead commented on the results of this survey: “Employers have to take a really objective view when dealing with complaints of harassment in the workplace. It is not appropriate for them to assess behaviour against what they themselves are comfortable with or find acceptable. Everyone has their own yardstick against which they measure ‘banter’ and what some people find funny, others will not. This is an important element for an employer to remember when investigating a complaint.”