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Last updated: 11.03.22

What Is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Sexual harassment is a social issue that has been seriously brought into perspective over the past few years. One of the significant places that this kind of behaviour tends to take place is at work, with countless examples of cases where employees have been bullied, intimidated or taken advantage of by other people they work with.

No matter the level of severity, sexual misconduct at work is a big issue that has a widespread impact. To be able to tackle the problem, it is important to know how to stop sexual harassment and how to handle a sexual harassment complaint at work. It’s steps such as these that help to ensure that your place of work is a space where everyone feels safe and protected from inappropriate behaviour by their employer.

In this article, we explain what is meant by sexual harassment in the workplace and explain some of the best approaches to tackling the problem.

What is Classed as Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Harassment is defined in The Equality Act (2010) as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”. Leading on from this, sexual harassment is any behaviour that fits the previous description that is sexual in nature, from physical actions to verbal comments or suggestions.

Workplace sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual behaviour that happens in a professional environment and causes an individual to feel uncomfortable, scared or humiliated. Inappropriate behaviour in the workplace does not have to be directed at a specific person for it to count as sexual harassment; general comments and actions that make an environment feel unsafe or toxic also count.

Some examples of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct at work include:

  • Inappropriate comments
  • Jokes of a sexual nature
  • Unwanted sexual advances or propositions
  • Non-consensual physical contact
  • Leering
  • Suggestive staring
  • Sending explicit or inappropriate messages
  • Sharing explicit content such as pornography
  • Asking intrusive sexual questions
  • Starting and spreading rumours of a sexual nature
  • Cases of sexual assault

What is the Impact of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace can have a serious negative impact on those who are targeted. Victims often suffer from long-term emotional and psychological trauma, particularly with cases of sexual assault, which can take a really long time to overcome and affect many aspects of their personal life as well as their professional one, making it one of the most serious negative effects of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Working in an environment where you have been sexually harassed can lead to anxiety and stress because of the negative associations with the location, which in turn can affect your performance at work. This not only affects how much you enjoy your job, but can impact your career progression if your performance drops or you become less productive and motivated.

A controversial impact of sexual harassment in the workplace is that it can also lead to the victim losing their job or gaining a negative reputation in their industry. There have been numerous unfortunate cases where an employee has been fired or eventually made to quit their job after making a sexual harassment allegation, which whilst technically illegal, does sometimes still happen.

Sexual harassment cases in the workplace not only have an impact on the victims, but also the work environment as a whole. Workplace cultures that allow sexual harassment to occur are very toxic places where certain demographics of employees may feel scared or intimidated on a daily basis. Failing to deal with this behaviour also means that it continues unchecked, which contributes to wider issues of sexual harassment in other environments.

If employees are subject to any kind of sexual harassment at work, their performance is likely to be impacted. This will have a negative impact on the productivity of a company as a whole, with employees working less efficiently, avoiding collaboration or asking for help, and feeling less motivated to suggest new ideas and go above and beyond to do a good job.

Failing to put a stop to sexual harassment may also mean that employees stop trusting the people they work for and leave their jobs to go and work somewhere else where they feel safer.

Looking at the wider workplace image, and impact of sexual harassment in the workplace can be that a company gains a bad reputation. Whether this comes from an employee going public about a case or just word of mouth within your industry, becoming known as a place where sexual harassment occurs is something that your company wants to avoid at all costs.

A bad reputation can really affect sales, as customers are much less likely to want to support a business that is known for cases of sexual misconduct at work. It’s also bad for recruitment prospects, as potential employees won’t want to work in an environment where they run the risk of being sexually harassed by someone they work with.

Finally, allowing office harassment to take place leaves your company liable to potential legal difficulties if an employee decides to take their case to court. This can be incredibly expensive which will have a big impact on the business, as well as potentially attract a lot of negative attention and PR.

How to Handle Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

From HR professionals to line managers and workplace wellbeing representatives, plenty of people have a responsibility to handle inappropriate behaviour and allegations of sexual misconduct at work. Here’s what you need to consider when it comes to managing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Take Allegations Seriously

One of the most important things to remember when dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace is to take all allegations seriously. No matter who they involve or the kind of harassment that has taken place, if someone has come to you with a complaint then you need to respond professionally and proactively.

Plenty of cases of workplace sexual harassment are never reported because the victim is worried that they won’t be taken seriously, will be told to keep the story to themselves, or could face backlash for bringing the issue up. In order to take an effective stance against sexual harassment, all workplaces must make an active effort to support employees who have been harassed and ensure that workers feel as though they can talk to senior members of staff if they have any concerns.

Respond to Behaviour Immediately

Having a zero-tolerance approach is one of the best solutions for sexual harassment in the workplace. You should make sure to respond to any claim or concern to demonstrate that any kind of inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated, as this will deter any future offences and ensure that victims know that their complaints will lead to action.

Responding to behaviour immediately also means shutting down any kind of inappropriate or offensive behaviour as soon as you become aware of it. Things like jokes or offhand comments may seem harmless on their own but can help to contribute to a workplace culture where sexual harassment happens under the radar, so it’s important to notice these quickly and stop them from occurring.

Implement a Sexual Harassment Policy 

One of the most effective methods of preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is to implement a policy that makes the company’s stance on the problem clear.

A sexual harassment policy should make a written commitment to preventing and removing all kinds of inappropriate behaviour from the workplace. It should outline what constitutes sexual harassment and explain why this won’t be tolerated in any form towards any employee.

The policy should also outline the process that employees should follow if they want to make a complaint about inappropriate behaviour. This needs to include who they should speak to, any formal processes they will need to follow, and an estimate of what might happen after an allegation has been made.

Having a sexual harassment policy is not only important for demonstrating that your company takes the issue seriously, but also will make sure that cases are actually reported by giving a clear set of instructions for employees to follow.

Know the Law

The law regarding sexual harassment in the UK falls under The Equality Act (2010). Sexual harassment is unlawful under this legislation, as is treating an employee less favourably because they have rejected or submitted to any kind of sexual conduct.

Employees have a lawful right not to be sexually harassed at work, which means that they can submit a complaint to an employment tribunal if they are the victim of any kind of sexual misconduct. They are also legally protected from any victimisation after they have made a complaint.

Because of the legality connected to sexual harassment at work, employers are legally responsible for preventing this kind of behaviour in their workplace. Failure to take steps to prevent it can leave you liable, which is why it is so important to implement all possible measures to keep our employees safe and fulfil your duty of care.

Knowing the law around sexual harassment cases in the workplace is very important when it comes to handling allegations or concerns, as it ensures that employers take the correct steps and provide all of the support they are obligated to.

Offer Training and Support

The final piece of advice for managing sexual harassment in the workplace is to consider providing training for staff who will be responsible for handling complaints and allegations. This will ensure that there are people working in your organisation who know exactly what to do if someone is sexually harassed and feel confident in their actions, making finding a solution and delivering consequences more likely.

Appointing trained members of staff will also provide points of proper support for employees who may have experienced sexual harassment, which will help cases to be dealt with more effectively and minimise the damage these experiences have caused.

FAQs

How often does sexual harassment occur in the workplace?

According to a 2019 survey, 38% of women and 14% of men report having experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. The actual numbers are likely to be higher however, as sexual harassment is notoriously something that a lot of people choose not to report or speak out about.

What is the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a broad term that refers to a range of behaviour that includes both verbal and physical harassment. Sexual assault specifically refers to non-consensual sexual behaviour or contact that tends to be physical.

Why does sexual harassment go unreported?

Sexual harassment is an offence that frequently goes unreported. Whilst victims are never to blame for what happens to them, many people often feel ashamed or embarrassed and will keep their experiences secret to avoid uncomfortable conversations or victim-blaming. 

There’s also a real problem of victims not being believed, with many perpetrators of sexual harassment never facing any consequences for their behaviour, which puts off many victims from reporting what happens. Sexual harassment cases in the workplace often bring bad press to the business in which they happen, so there are also some cases where an employee will be persuaded not to officially report a case to protect the company’s reputation.

Summary

Sexual harassment at work is something that can happen to anyone regardless of their background or identity. Understanding the relevant legalities and best methods for stopping sexual harassment in the workplace is important for all employees, particularly if you are in a position where other members of staff may report incidents like this to you.

If you’re looking for guidance and training surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace, we offer ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace for Employees’ and ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace for Managers’ courses which explain the actions that should be taken in the event of any kind of inappropriate misconduct at work.

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