Sexual harassment at work

It would appear that no industry is safe from the threat of sexual harassment, with recent examples in Hollywood, hospitality and the political parties highlighting the widespread nature of the problem, writes Amanda Chadwick. The ensuing media coverage has raised debates about the responsibilities employers have to protect their employees in the workplace.

The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct relating to sex or of a sexual nature which violates an individual’s dignity or creates an intimidating, degrading, humiliating, hostile or offensive environment. Examples of sexual harassment include: sexual jokes; physical conduct; touching and unwelcome sexual advances; sexual assault; displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature; and sending emails which contain sexual content. A recent study by the Fawcett Society shows that half of all women in the UK have suffered sexual harassment at work.



Employers are responsible for any acts of sexual harassment carried out by their employees unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent this. Implementing clear workplace policies and training is one way in which employers may tackle sexual harassment. Employees should be informed of the severity of sexual harassment and instructed on what is considered to be inappropriate behaviour. It should be communicated that characterising behaviour as ‘banter’ is not an acceptable justification of harassment and any individual carrying out sexual harassment must be subjected to formal disciplinary procedures.

Parliament recently commissioned a review of their complaints procedure in response to allegations of harassment. The review found one in five people working in Westminster had experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months. With this in mind, employers should examine their own grievance policy to ensure it is sufficient for raising complaints of sexual harassment. Any grievances raised should be treated seriously to encourage employees to report sexual harassment, helping to cultivate a culture of openness.

Further protection has been called for employees who are subjected to sexual harassment from third parties following reports of female hospitality workers suffering harassment from male guests at a charity gala. Since 2013, employers are not responsible for harassment carried out by third parties; however, there are renewed calls for this to be reintroduced. To prevent this happening, management can be training on how to spot incidents of third-party harassment while supporting employees who have suffered this. Communicating a clear stance to third parties that harassment towards employees will not be tolerated is an effective way to deter this.

  • Amanda Chadwick is an employment law and health & safety presenter at Peninsula Business Services

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